At issue was whether Mass. G. L. c. 56, § 42, a 1946 statute that criminalizes any knowingly false statement in relation to any candidate for nomination or election to public office, violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The statute punishes the convicted speaker with either a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for up to six months. This case was initiated during the 2014 state elections by an incumbent (and subsequently reelected) candidate, State Representative Brian Mannal, who successfully applied for the issuance of a criminal complaint against Melissa Lucas, the chairperson and treasurer of Jobs First, an independent-expenditure Political Action Committee. Mannal alleged that Lucas was responsible for the PAC’s publication and circulation of a brochure falsely stating that Mannal, a criminal defense attorney, would benefit personally from the passage of bill that he was sponsoring. Mannal’s proposed legislation would earmark state funds for court-appointed criminal attorneys representing indigent convicted sex offenders in post-conviction proceedings. The SJC stayed Lucas’ arraignment in Falmouth District Court until it decided the constitutionality of the statute, in the exercise of its general superintendence powers. The Court issued an amicus announcement and heard oral argument on May 7, 2015.
In its amicus brief in support of the defendant, NELF argued that this case was not about protecting the right to lie in political campaigns. Instead, it was about protecting the First Amendment right of everyone, including State Representative Brian Mannal himself, to engage freely in political debate about the qualifications of candidates for public office, without fear of criminal reprisal from the government. Such speech is “integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution. The First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression . . . .” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n, 514 U.S. 334, 346 (1995) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
As NELF argued, political speech does not lose its First Amendment protection even if it is false (to the extent that political speech can be reduced to truth or falsity). This means that the disputed statute is a content-based prohibition on protected speech. Therefore, the statute violates the First Amendment unless the Commonwealth can show that it survives “exacting scrutiny.” It must be narrowly tailored to serve an overriding state interest.
This the Commonwealth cannot show. Indeed, “it might be maintained that political speech simply cannot be banned or restricted as a categorical matter . . . .” Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310, 340 (2010). This is because political campaign speech is the essence of self-government and thus occupies the highest rung of First Amendment values. To ensure the proper functioning of a representative democracy, core political speech must be afforded ample breathing space to flourish. The First Amendment thus requires that the electorate shall engage freely in political debate and shall decide whom and what to believe during an election campaign, without any governmental interference.
By contrast, the fact or threat of criminal prosecution is antithetical to this First Amendment value because it stifles political discourse, especially when that discourse is needed most, on the eve of an election. The statute thus impinges the rights of the electorate, both as speaker and listener. As a result, the political process suffers.
The First Amendment ensures a wide-open marketplace of ideas in which the appropriate remedy for allegedly false speech is simply more speech, and not enforced silence through actual or threatened criminal prosecution. As the Supreme Court has long recognized, counter speech is a particularly effective remedy during a political campaign, because a candidate is likely to respond immediately and forcefully to false accusations, as this case illustrates.
Not only does the statute fail exacting scrutiny. It is also void for vagueness. Political speech is often an unruly mixture of fact and opinion that cannot be reduced to neat categories of truth and falsity. This means that the statute cannot provide adequate notice of what speech is permitted or proscribed. This can only result in widespread self-censorship among the electorate. The statute’s vagueness could also invite prosecutorial abuse, such as the silencing of views that are critical of incumbents or government generally.
In its decision issued on August 6, 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with NELF that Mass. G. L. c. 56, § 42 was unconstitutional. The Court, however, based its decision entirely on the Massachusetts constitution holding that “§ 42 is antagonistic to the fundamental right of free speech enshrined in art. 16 of our Declaration of Rights and, therefore, is invalid.” On this basis, the Court dismissed the criminal complaint charging the defendant with criminal charges under § 42.