Since its founding, a major tenet of our nation’s judicial system is the right for those charged with a crime to face their accusers. The fairness of that right seems so obvious that we take it for granted. Yet there remain places in the world where no such right exists, primarily countries dominated by autocratic rule.
Few people would disagree that when someone is accused of something, it’s only fair that the person making the accusation reveals his identity. We cringe at anonymous accusations, and rightfully so, because it does not allow us to determine the accuser’s motives and credibility.
For similar reasons, we expect a certain amount of transparency in our political advertising. Accusations, wild claims and mudslinging are not uncommon during an election, and while court rulings have eroded them some in recent years, laws exist to help us understand who is paying to influence elections.
While the judicial system offers the possibility for sufficient consequences for a criminal act, unfortunately our political advertising disclosure laws lack teeth.
We’ve seen examples of this in our community over the past two municipal election cycles.
The Dispatch reported earlier this week on a billboard in Starkville which targets Mayor Lynn Spruill, who is seeking a second term. Seemingly in violation of Mississippi law, the ad does not include any disclaimer that it is a paid political ad. It also fails to identify the individual or group paying for the ad.
Asked about those violations, the owner of the billboard that features the ad seemed not at all concerned, probably for good reason. Many campaign laws have little deterrent power and are loosely regulated, if at all. They are like laws concerning spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking: They exist, but are rarely, if ever, enforced. We think that’s a mistake that can lead to wealthy individuals and groups unfairly influencing elections.
In Columbus in 2017, another billboard similarly caught the public’s attention. This one attacked the credibility of a mayoral candidate. Later that year, a group behind a series of radio ads intended to influence the possible sale of OCH hospital in Starkville also failed to make proper disclosures. The Dispatch reached out to the Attorney General’s office this week for an update on those two four-year-old complaints and still has not received information on the status of those complaints.
We have a right to know who is making accusations so that we can judge for ourselves the accusers’ credibility and make some inferences about their motives.
The public interest is not served when this information is withheld.