The War of the Ricks won't change our politics

Lawsuit over misleading ad is before the Iowa Supreme Court

Todd Dorman
Published: January 29 2014 | 8:41 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:49 am in
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Some folks think the War of the Ricks will bring peace to our deceptive, cringe-inducing politics.

Back in 2010, State Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, sued his Democratic opponent, Rick Mullin, also of Sioux City, and the Iowa Democratic Party. In a hotly contested race,

Bertrand ran a TV ad showing Mullin as a grainy guy running down an alley, away from his “liberal” stands. Mullin, at the urging of Democratic leaders, hit back with an ad charging that Bertrand “put profits ahead of children’s health” in past work for a Japanese biotech company.

Bertrand was a regional manager for Takeda North America, an arm of Takeda Pharmaceutical, which faced FDA criticism over its products. But the ad exaggerated Bertrand’s role in the company and implied, incorrectly, that he was connected to the drugs at issue. Bertrand went to court.

He won the election by 222 votes. Then he won a $231,000 jury award for defamation in April 2012. It was reduced to $50,000 on appeal, and now the case is before the Iowa Supreme Court. It’s getting a lot of attention.

“This is how you change the face of politics,” Bertrand told Statehouse reporter Mike Wiser after arguments before the court last week. During those arguments, Justice Thomas Waterman worried that “good people” might be deterred from public office if this sort of politics was allowed to stand. On Monday, the Quad-City Times editorial page hoped the court might find a way to curb “reckless, defamatory” ads.

Others, including Chief Justice Mark Cady, seem more concerned about the First Amendment implications of punishing even spurious political claims. A speech-chilling precedent might be set.

Laudable hopes and understandable misgivings. But this case isn’t going to change anything.

For starters, winning remains everything at this hour. The notion that a strategist for a campaign that might determine control of the Legislature, governor’s office or even Congress is going to think twice about hammering a rival with dubious, damaging charges flies in the face of everything we know about our political era. Based on what we know, Mullin’s real sin was not having some shady outside group with secret donors defame Bertrand from arm’s length. Try suing a shadow, senator.

Political charges and smears now travel at the speed of Justin Bieber’s Lamborghini, on rocket fuel. Our courts, God bless them, are lumbering steamships in comparison. Bertrand filed his lawsuit in October 2010 and didn’t get a verdict until 2012. The Supreme Court may not rule before the 2014 election. So fib fabulously in a campaign ad, and you’ll get yours, four years from now.

This is supposed to be a deterrent amid the feverish pressure of a fast-moving campaign?

And I doubt that even a ruling for Bertrand could chill our red-hot political speech. Falsehoods are protected now more than ever within a media landscape where, for every fact-checker yelling pants on fire, there are 50 partisan scribes loudly swearing it’s true, or making excuses, or defaming the fact-checker.

The Supreme Court ought to know, considering the outright lies told in the interest of tossing its justices off the bench. I don't think a chilling effect is in the forecast. It’s the truth that’s in a polar vortex.

 

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