Legal Actions Initiated over Political Ads in High-Profile Senate Races

Not even two weeks after we highlighted the issue of defamation claims arising from political ads, those very claims are making headlines right now in two high-profile political races.

Just this week, two United States Senate candidates—Minnesota incumbent Norm Coleman and North Carolina challenger Kay Hagan—have instituted legal action against their political opponents over alleged defamation in political ads.

The subject of Coleman’s suit against challenger Al Franken is a political ad claiming that Coleman was “ranked the fourth most corrupt Senator in Washington” and that he was "living almost rent-free in the million-dollar home of a Washington insider."  As we discussed in a prior post, claims that a politician is "corrupt" or has been involved in "corruption" have been the subject of other litigation.

Kay Hagan's legal action involves a political ad run by incumbent Elizabeth Dole.  In the papers Hagan filed in court, she contends the ad "falsely implies that [Hagan] shares the views of an entity that calls itself the Godless Americans PAC."  Hagan also takes issue with the way the ad ends, which includes an image of Hagan while a voiceover from someone apparently associated with the PAC states "There is no God."  Hagan contends that this depiction "implies it is [Hagan's] voice and her statement."  Prior to institution of a legal action, Hagan aired an ad of her own responding to Dole's ad. 

In response to a "cease and desist" letter from Hagan's attorneys that preceded the legal action, attorneys representing Dole defended the accuracy and legality of the ad and indicated that Dole would not pull it, contending that the ad "plainly states facts."  Dole has moved to dismiss Hagan's action, and she has run a new ad on the same topic.

We will follow the progress of these lawsuits.  Because both ads were candidate ads, the television stations that aired them were provided immunity from liability under federal law.  However, these lawsuits serve as further reminders that political ads can give rise to litigation.

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