By now, after several weeks of Duck Dynasty nonsense, everyone in the United States should be aware that the free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment is protection from government reprisals, not private blow back. If I say something offensive, my employer can fire me, as long as the business is not government owned. But how far should that government protection go? Traditionally, obscenity, libel, fighting words, and “shouting fire in a crowded theater” (creating a dangerous disturbance), have traditionally been the categories of non-protected free speech. A group in Ohio wants to add to them. They want political lies to be protected speech as well.
The short version of the story is as follows: The Susan B. Anthony List wanted to put up a billboard stating that a candidate for office thinks the government should pay for abortions since his is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act. However, the ACA does not pay for abortions, so it would be a lie.
As with all lawsuits, it’s more complicated than that, and involves a fair amount of technicalities, but for our purposes, let’s just leave it at that. Should political lies be protected? On the one hand, a lie may just be a form of libel. On the other, the standard of libel for public figures is much stricter than for private citizens and a politician running for office is a public figure. (If I remember correctly, libel of a public figure means that a statement is untrue and that it is published/stated by people who knows that it is untrue. Libel for a private individual needs only be untrue. There must be damages for both. Can any constitutional lawyers confirm this?)
In short, we give the widest latitude to pubic political speech, including saying that someone is the “right person for the job” or has the highest integrity, when he or she is the wrong person or is completely corrupt. Should we extend this protection to lies? And if we do, does it mean we have completely abandoned Truth and Facts in the political process? I think that it does and I think it also suggests that voters are, irrational, choosing sides based solely on emotion and intuition.
Choosing a candidate because you want to have a beer with him or her is indeed subordinating truth and facts in favor of charisma and likeability, but most voters at least pretend to choose with more depth — beer drinking isn’t the only standard. We strive for the ideals of rationality, wisdom, and knowledge. I fear that protecting lies on the political level would be a rejection of these ideals, and if we let them go, what do we have left to strive for as citizens?