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SCOTUS

The legend goes that Lyndon Baines Johnson, during a brutal 1948 race for U.S. Senate, instructed his campaign manager to begin spreading a rumor suggesting his opponent routinely undertook to gather carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.

"But Lyndon, we can't say that," the campaign manager protested. "It's not true."

"Of course not," LBJ shot back. "But let's make the bastard deny it."

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Oral arguments begin tomorrow in an interesting U.S. Supreme Court case to figure out whether half-truths, mistruths, fibs, outright lies and fables are a protected part of free political speech.

The case comes directly out of our Great River state, Ohio, which has had various laws on the books against lying in campaigns dating back to the 1960s.

Specifically, SCOTUS will decide whether it is constitutional for Ohio law to ban false statements made with malice during a campaign.

In accepting this case, SCOTUS rejected Ohio AG Mike DeWine's argument that the court did not have to address the matter as two lower federal courts dismissed the lawsuit in question.

During the 2010 re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus, Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit organization, intended to put up a billboard slamming him for his vote in support of the Affordable Care Act.

The billboard was to say, "Shame on Steve Driehaus. Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortion."

Under threat of lawsuit from Driehaus' attorney, the owner of the billboard declined to put up the sign, and Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission asserting that as a false statement the intended ad was prohibited.

Driehaus was defeated by Steve Chabot in that election and dropped his complaint, but the Susan B. Anthony List in turn filed a complaint with a federal judge alleging that Driehaus's complaint hampered its free speech rights, and challenging the Ohio law as unconstitutional.

That judge, as well as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected that complaint. (Columbus Dispatch)

Now it's SCOTUS' turn to decide. The American Civil Liberties Union and the administration of President Barack Obama have both sided with the Susan B. Anthony group and the Republican National Committee on the issue. (Al Jazeera America)

The SCOTUS decision may be fairly limited, possibly only ruling on whether the Susan B. Anthony group has standing to challenge the law, given that it never faced a penalty, much less a ruling in the matter.

But the case has brought out the passions of free speech proponents in the form of dozens of amicus briefs extolling America's long history of outrageous lies during campaign season.

In fact, there is a whole subgenre of political non-fiction based around the mendacious tactics used by pols and their minions to bloody and sully each other on the campaign trail.

Negative campaigning was birthed early in America. Thomas Jefferson's campaign called then-President John Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

Adam's camp in turn called Jefferson a "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

The designation of "mulatto" was apparently pretty popular in the early 19th century.

During a battle between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson for the presidency, one paper, doubtlessly under the direction of the Adams campaign reported, "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!"

John Quincy Adams was in turn labeled a pimp, and Jackson's wife a slut. (Mental Floss)

When Martin Van Buren was seeking the presidency his opponents wasted no time in asserting that he was the bastard child of the legendarily treasonous Aaron Burr, though historians have argued ever since whether this was indeed a lie, or could've in fact been true.

Of course, American history, and, indeed, all political history, is littered with such stories.

As infuriating as I'm sure many of these tactics were at the time they were deployed, reading about them now renders them largely humorous and entertaining.

The primary concern of freedom of speech has always been freedom of political speech, and the protection of free political speech will always be paramount in any respectable democratic republic.

Americans may not much like the dirty side of politics but the freedom to call your opponent a pig fk'er, and make the bastard deny it, is a time-honored tradition, as American as apple pie.

Find Senior Writer David DeWitt on Facebook and Follow on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.

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