Following the midterm elections, the tricks employed by political campaigns to sway voters are still fresh in our minds. This year in Oregon, we saw a senatorial candidate accused of plagiarism, ads on opposite sides of the same measure reporting contradictory information, and the governor’s fiance’s past paraded before us as collateral. Par for the course, but I have to wonder, how far can these messages go before they become defamatory?
By law, the rules of defamation apply differently to public figures. Public figures must prove actual malice in a lawsuit, which is no easy feat. Political ads and rhetoric are often incredibly misleading and negatively framed, however campaigns never seem to be chastised for this. True, a political candidate has declared her/himself a public figure by running for office, and according to Deliah Saper, all of a candidate’s history becomes public with them. However, all the information I find on this subject takes the same perspective on the issue, stating that public figures will not win lawsuits over comments made during a campaign. But my concern lies with the voters, not the candidates. Yes, a candidates reputation may be damaged as a result of defamatory content from the opposition, but what effect do these misleading campaign messages have on voters, and why is a candidate’s image the only outcome we worry about?