Jail Time for ‘Misleading’ Politicians?

May 20, 2016

Inside Insight

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By ASHLEY LANDESS

taking oathSome politicians want to make it a felony to ‘mislead’ them. No prizes for guessing who’d get to decide what ‘mislead’ means.

Two years ago, a House study committee on ethics passed an absurd rule to force citizens to be sworn in before they could speak at House committee hearing. The rule (see proposal 26 here) would have made it a felony to give “false, materially misleading or materially incomplete” testimony. There were no definitions of those terms, either. It would have been up to the legislators to decide who is “willfully” leaving out information.

We at SCPC were quick to sound the alarm, as were others, and the rule never made it into any legislation.

That is, until this week when retiring House member Walt McLeod (D-Newberry) introduced the rule into an actual bill. We shouldn’t be shocked that they’d try again. Clearly, some public officials are doing all they can to silence their critics, from unconstitutional laws to blatant threats against organizations that speak out about corruption.

The more we tell the truth and expose the corruption that has become commonplace and even legal in this state, the angrier the public becomes.

No wonder powerful politicians want to shut down the truth. They can’t defend the system that allows them to profit from office and police themselves. So instead they propose fake “ethics reform” bills – championed by Gov. Haley – to give the illusion of change without implementing it at all, and they propose laws that directly infringe on South Carolinians’ right to free speech.

This absurd proposal to force citizens to swear an oath before delivering testimony at committee hearings is not only unconstitutional and un-American, it’s unnecessary. We don’t need a law forbidding citizens from lying to politicians – if anything, it’s the other way around! Citizens are entitled to participate in the legislative process – it is belongs to them, and legislators have no right to censor what citizens present to them in a committee hearing by deciding it might be “misleading.” How would anyone prove someone deliberately left out “materially” important facts from their testimony?

This law seems completely unenforceable, and in any other state it would be. But in our state a handful of legislative leaders who aren’t accountable statewide decide who becomes a judge. It’s not a stretch to believe they could have anyone prosecuted if they wanted to, and those of us who have been on the wrong side of their wrath know that’s true. Practically speaking, who would or could decide what constitutes “materially incomplete” testimony? This bill would give that decision to “the majority of the committee members.”

Yeah – no reason to worry about that!

It’s bad enough that legislators are insulting citizens by pretending to solve the non-existent problem of keeping them from lying to legislators. What’s far worse is the real goal – to frighten citizens into never taking the risk of participating in the legislative process.

The very idea that a citizen could wind up in jail for speaking before a committee is beyond the grasp of most Americans. In fact, we thought at least this outrageous proposal was dead and buried. Apparently not. In fact, the bill was sent straight to the House floor – thus avoiding a committee hearing in which citizen could still speak their minds without threat of being prosecuted and jailed.

Can’t make this stuff up.

Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.