VIRGINIA GOV. Charles Robb did the right thing this week when he told the legislature to take a second look at a controversial and wrongheaded proposal to make libel of political candidates a crime. This measure, of which Del. Floyd Bagley of Prince William County is author, would make it unlawful for any person "to intentionally cause the circulation of any writing concerning another who is a candidate, with knowledge that the content of such writing is materially false."
The Bagley proposal was added as an amendment to a more general election revisions bill that the governor did not want to veto. But he had an alternative, and he used it. He decided to send the bill back to the legislators when they reconvene on April 21 and ask them to remove the criminal libel provision before he signs the bill.
This is not a plea for the right to lie and defame. It is a reminder that there are other, better responses to political attack. Campaigns, by their very nature, consist largely of charges and counter-charges, accusations and references to the motives, ability and character of the candidates. Usually these charges are directed by one candidate against the other, or by enthusiastic campaign workers or supporters. Sometimes, ordinary citizens and voters raise questions about the qualifications of a candidate in a manner that might be construed as misleading.
While most people who run for office wouldn't be in the kitchen if they couldn't take some of this heat, they have the right to protest distortions and lies, and they already have at least two means of seeking redress. First, they can respond directly in public forums and in campaign material of their own, and second, they can bring a civil libel action and request money damages. Either course brings to the attention of the public the objections of the candidate who believes he has been maligned and gives him an opportunity to present the other side of the case to the voters.
Criminal prosecution for libel of a political candidate carries the remedy much too far. Not only is a jail sentence an extreme penalty for misrepresenting a candidate's views, but the mere threat of a jail sentence inhibits political debate. Citizens should be free to question the actions of those who run for public office without fear of criminal penalties for mistaken assertions.
Candidates should fight distortions with truth, not arrest warrants, and prosecutors, who are often elected officials themselves, should stay out of the whole thing.