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April 26, 2014

In Our Opinion: Lies are free speech, too

Richard Nixon told America, “I am not a crook.” George H.W. Bush promised “no new taxes.” Bill Clinton claimed he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” And Barack Obama assured us that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” 

Famous words from famous men. But under an Ohio law, they might also be illegal. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week about an Ohio law that prohibits politicians from making false statements while seeking office. The examples of false statements above are from a brief presented to the court by The Cato Institute and P.J. O’Rourke. 

The Ohio law, like others in more than 15 states, demands that the lie in question must be shown to have caused harm. (New York has no such law.) But we already have libel and slander laws, which protect all of us from false and harmful statements. If someone is harmed by a politician’s false statement, he or she already has legal recourse, making these laws seem redundant. 

Given that, nowadays, campaigning never seems to stop, and many elected officials seem allergic to the truth, these laws pose several interesting questions. 

The question of enforcement is a tricky one as well. Would it be possible to prove, to a court’s satisfaction, that Bush the Senior was “lying” when he declared there would be no new taxes? Or was he simply making a prediction that proved to be inaccurate? (The same question could be asked about Obama’s statement on the Affordable Care Act.) 

Groups such as PolitiFact regularly vet politicians’ statements for truthfulness, and many fall short of the mark. But it is not a black-and-white divide. In fact, it’s quite colorful. PolitiFact’s “Truth-O-Meter” ranges from red flames, for Pants on Fire, to green, for True, but there are shades of yellow and orange in between. Where on this spectrum does a statement become a “lie”?

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