It Must Be Something in the Cheese

The state of Wisconsin is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to make statements of a political nature.

Those who follow the issue of political speech regulation are probably familiar with some of the recent escapades in the Badger State over the past few years.

Wisconsin Right to Life wanted to run ads asking fellow citizens to contact their U.S. Senators regarding judicial nominees, and was promptly slapped down by the Federal Election Commission. The U.S. Supreme Court thankfully upheld the First Amendment in 2007 when it got the chance, preserving at least in part the right of Americans to speak about politics.

Earlier this year, a Wisconsin resident who was critical of a local school bond referendum got in hot water after he paid to place an ad in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel voicing his concerns. Residents of Wisconsin who dare to spend more than $25.00 opposing or supporting a candidate or ballot measure must first register with the state as a political committee, something this citizen didn’t do.

The District Attorney who was given the job of investigating the case had perhaps the best quote I’ve ever heard on this type of issue: "It’s a circumstance where it is a citizen who had strong feelings about the referendum and just had no idea that those campaign finance laws that you hear about now and then even remotely applied to a citizen who just wanted to exercise his constitutional right to free speech."

And of course, earlier this year CCP Vice President Steve Hoersting was in Wisconsin, testifying in front of the Government Accountability Board about proposals to tighten regulation of independent expenditures.

As if all this wasn’t enough to make Wisconsin a dangerous place to speak, there is now an effort to criminally prosecute a successful candidate for State Supreme Court for allegedly "false" statements made in his campaign ads.

A Milwaukee County Supervisor is asking a county district attorney to investigate whether Justice Michael Gableman violated a law that makes it a crime to make a "false" statement regarding a candidate. If found guilty, Gableman could be sentenced to 6 months in prison.

From Minnesota’s Pioneer Press:

Citing an obscure law, a county supervisor is asking for an investigation into whether Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman committed a crime when he ran a misleading campaign ad.

Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan Jr. said he believes Gableman violated a law that prohibits anyone from knowingly making "a false representation pertaining to a candidate." The law punishes violators with up to six months behind bars but has not been used to prosecute anyone in decades, if ever.

Weishan filed a complaint asking Burnett County District Attorney William Norine to investigate Gableman, who joined the court in August after defeating incumbent Justice Louis Butler in the April election…

Earlier this month, the Judicial Commission alleged Gableman committed judicial misconduct when he ran the ad…Its complaint said "the misrepresentation was made knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth."

If the complaint is upheld, Gableman could face discipline ranging from a reprimand to removal from the bench.

This is frightening stuff, but no surprise to those who follow the issue and see an increasingly aggressive effort to intimidate and harass candidates and citizens who speak out in politics.

One of the fundamental premises of competitive politics is that the "truth" is, in most cases, a matter of perspective and opinion, and is usually delivered with some degree of hyperbole and an utter lack of nuance. Judging the whether an ad (or any statement) is "false" must ultimately rest with voters, not government.

Giving politicians and political appointees the power to jail candidates and citizens whose "truth" does not match their own is what I expect in North Korea, not the Badger State.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.