The right to lie?

“I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I have no idea who first spoke these words, but I used to embrace them.

In today’s political climate of 24/7 say anything, I’m having second thoughts.

A couple of days ago I read a blog discussion about Sarah Palin’s new book, “Going Rogue: An American Life” - for days now the No. 1 “bestseller” on Amaxon.com . The post noted that some persons mentioned in Palin’s book are denying the veracity of the woman’s words.

Immediately, a Palin supporter pointed out that she has the “right to free speech.”

There is an ethical side to the claim of free speech. Of course, the Supreme Court has said free speech does not include yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. And, there are libel and slander laws in place to protect persons from written or spoken defamation. The Court has ruled that “public figures” voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight and must prove “actual malice.” In any such lawsuit, truth is the best defense.

But, what about lies in the political arena, such as those in South Carolina which derailed John McCain’s bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination or the “swift-boating” which hurt John Kerry’s 2004 race?

Morally, is it a matter of free speech when persons lie in order to destroy an individual’s political ambitions? Are there moral connotations when persons spread outright lies to bring down anyone whose ideas they oppose? Did George W. Bush promote free speech when he allowed only supporters into his speeches and rallies, relegating those who opposed him to “free-speech zones” far from the venue in which he appeared?

In 2003, a federal court in Florida unanimously ruled that it is OK for Fox News to lie to its viewers. The defense argued there are no laws in the United States prohibiting media lies. A perfect defense.

I suspect when the Bill of Rights was adopted, guaranteeing basic freedoms, those who wrote the words had no idea how immoral politics and purveyors of opinion could become.

It is, after all, a question of right and wrong, isn’t it?

As long as lies are protected by the First Amendment, we must rely on the standard set forth in John Milton’s great plea for a free press, Aeropagitica:

“Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

An old Chinese proverb says, “A lie goes around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.” That was never more true than today. I wonder what Milton would argue in a day of 24/7 cable news, the World Wide Web and No. 1 bestsellers?

I’m betting he would still believe in the power of truth.


Falzone for America said...

We appreciate the analysis B.J. It seems that many of our problems come from the fact that most politicians are Lawyers. Ever wonder why the title Lawyer sounds so much like the word Liar?

They make the laws, carry out the discrimination of justice through the judicial system they designed, enact the legislation, and they don't intend to be held to the same limits by law as the rest of us are. Just look at the pension they get as a Senator. I wish I could work a few years and receive full pay for the rest of my life.

I don't think there are any solutions and I challenge anyone to claim we are a free nation living by the principles of Democracy when we have no solutions for the problems with our leadership.

B.J. said...

With apologies in advance to bbj whose husbby is a lawyer. :-)


bbj said...

ha haaaa . . . and he's a really ethical lawyer. I admit, though, lots of bad apples can spoil the whole barrel (or whatever that saying is).

Frodo, on a worrisome day, said...

Perhaps Mr. Washington actually chopped down two cherry trees admitting only to one. Perhaps Nathan Hale actually said, "Hey guys, I'm from Cornwall, and I love fish n' chips." But Frodo doesn't think so, in either case.
Frodo believes, as does Merry, that our foundation rests on truth.

Perhaps Thomas Paine developed the proper label for those whom he dubbed "Sunshine Patriots."

tiny said...

When you tell the truth you can repeat it. Lies have a way of getting tangled and the liars have a problem remembering what they told who.

As the Master Teacher taught, "The truth will set you free and you are free indeed." Experience that one! As Tony the Tiget says, "It's grrrrreat."

Bill Sumrall said...

The quote you begin this blog with is attributed to Voltaire.
Here's another Voltaire quote that may also apply to those who twist the truth: "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."

tiny said...

Love that Voltaire prayer and how quick and how long it works. Voltaire must have prayed it for a gazillion of us.

Mr. Sumrall, thanks for the reminder.

One that some of us use is:

I wish you health, wealth and far away.

Infidel753 said...

Lying in such situations constitutes one of the classic cases where something is immoral but the law cannot touch it. A law against lying would get the government into the business of deciding what is true, which would be disastrous (imagine if Bush or a Supreme Court dominated by his appointees had had the power to define "lies" and punish them).

The quote is from Voltaire. He wasn't the kind of guy who would have "prayed", though.

B.J. said...

You are right, I-753, that morality cannot be legislated (unless, of course, it’s costing the U.S. tax coffers as prostitution does). There could be future High Court decisions redefining the libel and slander standards for “public figures” and “public officials” where such lies are shown to be destructive to individuals. In a number of landmark libel cases, the Supreme Court has ruled on “lies.”