In New Hampshire, criminalizing political speech

Kelly Ayotte

New Hampshire Republicans have hit upon a novel idea to help U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte: lock up a pollster hired by one of her opponents for the crime of engaging in political speech.

According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state GOP, chaired by Gov. John Sununu, has asked Attorney General Michael Delaney to investigate an allegation of push-polling by a pollster hired on behalf of Democratic congressional candidate Paul Hodes.

Push-polling is the practice of asking leading, negative questions of a rival candidate’s likely supporters. According to the Union Leader, respondents who identified themselves as leaning toward Ayotte were asked about her alleged inaction regarding a mortgage scandal that unfolded when she was New Hampshire’s attorney general and her deletion of e-mails when she stepped down from that office.

The Union Leader found that the calls were made on Hodes’ behalf by Mountain West Research, an Idaho-based polling firm hired, in turn, by Anzalone Liszt Research, a national outfit whose clients include Hodes. The Hodes campaign hasn’t exactly denied the allegation.

Now, as it happens, negative push-polling is illegal in New Hampshire unless the pollster identifies the candidate on whose behalf the call is being made and provides some other information as well. That means someone — an executive of one of the polling firms, or perhaps even Hodes himself — could be found to have broken the law.

It’s not clear what the maximum punishment could be. The Union Leader reports that the top penalty is a $1,000 civil fine. But an Associated Press story that appears in today’s Boston Globe reports that Associate Attorney General Richard Head says a violation could also carry with it a one-year prison term.

The law itself is an affront to freedom of speech, and so is the Republican Party’s attempt to use it to silence the opposition. Push-polling is a sleazy, underhanded campaign tactic — which means that it’s exactly the sort of political speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.

We await Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr’s take on all this.

Photo (cc) by Travis Warren and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.