Gov. Jay Inslee wants to make it a crime to lie about elections. His proposal, which will have a public hearing Friday, is a clear threat to free speech and must not move forward.
It is not a viable answer even as the danger to democracy is very real.
If that sounds like hyperbole, then you haven’t been paying attention. The storming of the U.S. Capitol, stoked by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, was just the beginning.
In Congress, Republicans have obstructed any effort to secure voting rights, even as GOP controlled legislatures throughout the country are making it harder to vote. Meanwhile, acolytes of the “big lie” — more than a dozen, in as many states — are vying to control the very elections they question.
On the anniversary of Jan. 6, Inslee waded into the fray.
“There is an ongoing coup attempt by candidates and elected officials to overturn our democracy,” he said. “I proposed we do something about that in Washington.”
Following the governor’s wishes, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, introduced Senate Bill 5843, which would make it a gross misdemeanor — punishable by up to 364 days in jail — for public officials and candidates to knowingly make false statements that incite and produce “lawless action.”
The bill’s language, officials said, is intended to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which lays out the limited circumstances under which speech may be prohibited.
Even with its very specific requirements, the courts are rightly suspicious of any law that runs counter to the First Amendment, especially those that would have the government determining what is true or not.
The Washington Supreme Court weighed in on false political speech in 2007, when it struck down a 1999 law that barred political candidates from deliberately making false claims about their opponents.
“The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment,” Justice James Johnson wrote for the majority.
That may be difficult to accept as we continue to be mired in a fog of misinformation cynically spread by bad actors, but the counter to false speech is true speech, not ill-advised legislation.
SB 5843 is scheduled for a public hearing starting at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 28, before the Senate State Government and Elections Committee. With a guaranteed First Amendment battle in court, it is likely only a matter of courtesy that the governor’s much-touted proposal has come this far.
In that spirit, we politely ask that this misguided bill go no further.