A new law that at first blush appears to be upholding a societal good — telling the truth — but is actually the sledge hammer of the state coming down to swat a fly, became effective in Arizona last week.
Most of House Bill 2288, which Gov. Janet Napolitano signed into law on Tuesday, reads as necessary housekeeping to the processes of initiative and referendum petitioning.
One sentence, however, is troubling: “A person who is a circulator of an initiative or referendum petition and who induces any other person in the circulator’s presence to sign the … petition by knowingly falsely describing the general subject matter of the measure is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.”
The maximum penalty, by the way, is a six-month jail term and up to $2,500 in fines, not including surcharges.
It’s the first time we’ve ever heard of an attempt by the state to outlaw lying in political discourse. Cracking down on lying sounds noble, but the state lacks any reasonable ability to properly enforce such a statute.
Unless “truth cops” are there to hear a petition-passer make his or her pitch, or someone is there to record it, gathering sufficient evidence to support a prosecution would be nearly impossible.
Even with evidence, the truth squads would be in the position of determining not only truth from lie, but truth from half-truth about a measure. Add in the possibility that leaving out certain things about a petition’s proposal might also be considered to be against the law.
The new law’s toothless provision about circulators making false statements won’t do anything to prevent them. It should be repealed.
The best way to prevent lying? It’s simple: Read the piece of paper they’re asking you to sign. By law it has to state exactly what it’s for, regardless of what Johnny or Jenny Fast-Talker is saying about it.
The responsibility for truth in initiative and referendum measures belongs to us all. That’s where it should be. After all, it’s your name, not the state’s, on that petition.