This past Tuesday was election day in Minnesota, at least it was in the 99 school districts who had school levy questions on the ballot. As is usually the case, these levy referenda had quite an uphill battle convincing folks to vote themselves a tax increase. At least when you vote for the Democrats you only have a general concern that your taxes will go up - with a school levy that is the issue directly being decided. I am not sure of the final tally, but I think that about a third of these levy referenda were not passed.
Two levies in particular are now at the center of an interesting legal battle.
In these two school districts (Robbinsdale in the Twin Cities metro area and Howard Lake - Waverly in rural southwestern MN) organized campaigns were run in opposition to the levies. This opposition was spearheaded by a 'consultant' from Iowa who helps run these anti-levy campaigns throughout the Midwest - a guy named Paul Dorr. Dorr did not help these campaigns out of some altruistic desire to ensure that residents of these districts get quality schools at a fair price; no, he is an avowed opponent of all public schooling. He believes that children should be educated in parochial schools and that money spent on secular public schools is misdirected. Possibly as a result of this initial bias he directed campaigns based on the dissemination of blatantly false statements about these school districts and their finances.
As it turns out, Minnesota has a law on the books outlawing false statements made in a effort to sway opinion on a ballot question. These groups have not yet been brought up on charges, but they have decided to take the lead. They have sued the state hoping to invalidate the anti-falsehood statute. As MN Public Radio put it: "Levy opponents sue for right to spread false information". Talk about making things hard for your lawyer!
It is one thing to protect speech that is unpopular, but patently false statements of fact seem to be of no value and never worth protecting. We're not talking about beliefs or opinions about facts, or mistakes made in regards to facts, but bald-faced lies. One example cited in these school levy cases is a statement that the Robbinsdale district is suffering financially because of non-residents choosing to attend school there, when in reality the state pays more for non-resident students than it does for residents. This kind of falsehood isn't likely to be a mistake, since these anti-levy groups requested and received piles of documents from the school districts, including complete financial records. The campaign even went to far as to boldly state "Support the Kids - Oppose the Waste!" in the headlines of its literature. No matter which side of a levy debate you are on, it seems pretty hard to make the case that the best thing for the kids in the schools would be to deny them any extra funds. While it may be the case that the schools have plenty of money and their problems stem from other sources (not in my opinion, but folks can realistically think this way), it seems pretty far-fetched that giving them more money would make things worse for the students.
I think that the law in MN doesn't go far enough (and ought to be the rule throughout the country rather than the exception). When a case of this sort turns up, the violators of the law should not be subject to monetary judgments alone - the election ought to be re-run and the violators forced to pay the costs - including the cost of disseminating factually correct information to counteract the effects of the garbage they spread the first time around. Just making them pay a fine after they have achieved their desired results in an election doesn't seem like much of a deterrent - they were already willing to pay to try to sway the vote their way. The folks who contributed most to the anti-levy campaign in Robbinsdale donated more to the campaign than they would have paid in increased taxes over the entire 10-year term of the levy, had the levy passed, so money alone is clearly not the primary concern of these folks.