You need a scorecard to keep up with the flurry of dubious judicial decisions being handed down these days. But a couple from either side of the Atlantic that are particularly troubling for anyone who favors access to truth and frowns upon the spreading of lies.
The former comes to us courtesy of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that all Internet search engines—Google, Yahoo!, etc.—are, “in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name.”
And in case you’re thinking that this applies only to bogus information, the Court makes it clear that you’re wrong. “[E]ven initially lawful processing of accurate data,” says the Court, “may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the [Court's] directive where, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, the data appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”
How one determines what qualifies as “inadequate, irrelevant,” etc., is anyone’s guess, as the Court offers no further guidelines. But the bottom line is clear: it is now European law that links to truthful, accurate stories may be censored from Internet searches simply because the subject doesn’t like them.
The ruling doesn’t affect Internet searches on this side of the Pond. But the big court out thisaway is doing its best to erect a different sort of barrier to living in an honest and forthcoming world by clearing a path to striking down an Ohio law that prohibits lying in campaign materials.
Here’s the skinny. In 2010, “pro-life” org the Susan B. Anthony List attempted to erect billboards in Ohio claiming then-Rep. Steve Driehaus “voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion,” apparently based on his support of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). Driehaus cried foul, complaining that the claim was a lie and therefore would be a violation of the Ohio law.
Although the billboards never went up, Driehaus lost his re-election bid, and so the Ohio Elections Commission dismissed his complaint. But the SBA List pursued the matter in federal court, challenging the Ohio law as unconstitutional. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the SBA List did not suffer “a sufficiently concrete injury for purposes of standing or ripeness.” However, the Supreme Court disagreed, and so the SBA List will be heard in its attempt to use First Amendment protections to refashion the world in their lying image.
That, of course, is not the way the SBA Listers see themselves, claiming that they’re merely trying to educate voters.
“Everything we have argued is true […],” the group claims in a press release. “The Affordable Care Act provides new federal tax subsidies that will finance elective abortion coverage for millions of women who did not have such insurance, expands state Medicaid program coverage of elective abortion for millions of women in dozens of states, and uses federal funds to finance elective abortion coverage for members of Congress and their staff.”
Ironically, in that same press release the SBA List confirms its willingness to play fast and loose with the truth by claiming they were “prevented from [erecting the billboards] because of the Ohio law.” But the Supreme Court tells it like it is: “The advertising company that owned the billboard space refused to display that message […] after Driehaus’ counsel threatened legal action.”
That’s nothing, of course, compared to the falsity of the SBA List claim that set all this in motion. Just ask Democrats for Life in America, whose self-proclaimed “pro-life” stance is so crispy that they oppose even embryonic stem-cell research.
“As pro-life Democrats, under the leadership of Congressman Bart Stupak, we worked very hard to include clear and concise language that will not allow Federal funds to be used for abortion,” the group says. “[…] No tax subsides (i.e. federal tax dollars) can be used for that purpose; this prevents direct and indirect public funding of abortion.”
Of course, the mendaciousness of the SBA List is a given, considering that to have legal standing to pursue their case they had to admit that their intentions were to violate the Ohio statute—in other words, to disseminate false information during the course of the campaign—and that they intend to do so in the future.
“When challenging a law prior to its enforcement, a plaintiff satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement where he alleges ‘an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest, but proscribed by a statute, and there exists a credible threat of prosecution thereunder,’” the Supreme Court noted. “[…] Petitioners have alleged ‘an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest’ by pleading specific statements they intend to make in future election cycles.”
As if truth in politics wasn’t already hard enough to find.
It’s not like either of these issues are easy ones. Clearly there’s a lot of information floating around in cyberspace, and maybe some of it really should be consigned to oblivion. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to agree at least partially with SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser when she says, “The truth or falsity of political speech should be judged by voters, not government bureaucrats.”
But yelling “Fire!” in a crowded cinema when nothing is ablaze is an example of a lie the First Amendment does not protect. And if once upon a time I did so and someone wrote about it, should I really be able to prevent you from retrieving the story by way of a search engine?
In a world where truth is a paramount virtue, resolving these issues would be relatively simple. Alas, we do not live in such a world.
Love and formic acid,