Lying Legally, and the Right to Speech

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Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down a 1999 law that banned political candidates from lying about their opponents. In the decision, the majority said the law was an affront to free speech.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court, politicians can lie about their opponents.

Our senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr, isn't sure a court ruling is needed for politicians to shave the truth.

DANIEL SCHORR: If a politician can't lie, what's left? Washington was one of more than a dozen states with laws making it illegal to say false things about a candidate for office. Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, held the law unconstitutional.

Justice James Johnson wrote for the majority that the notion of the government as the final arbiter of truth was fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment. Hurray for Justice Johnson. It seems to me, and to Justice Johnson, that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech includes the freedom to lie. Veracity becomes an issue on a broader plane than political campaigning.

Many of the current political controversies have to do with a question of who's lying. The president can shield secrets through executive power. So it's sometimes hard to tell when the president is less than truthful.

NORRIS: I did not have sexual relations with that woman. The current president finds his truth telling challenged on legislative and national security issues.

Was it accurate of President Bush to say this government does not torture people when secret memos reported by the New York Times seem to authorize some pretty harsh methods of interrogation? Was it accurate of him to say that Congress' SCHIP child health bill would provide federal coverage for families earning up to $83,000 a year when senators from both parties said that simply wasn't true? Or to step just outside the charmed circle of government, was it truthful of Erik Prince - the head of Blackwater Security - to testify that his mercenaries acted appropriately when the Iraqi government said they committed deliberate murder of civilians?

Very little is taken at face value anymore. Who was it who said that in times of war, truth is the first casualty.

This is Daniel Schorr.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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