Limiting Free Speech (46): Lies and False Statements of Fact

Should lies and false statements of fact be protected by free speech laws, or can the speech rights of those who intentionally lie be limited in some cases? The US Supreme Court believes the latter is true, somewhat surprisingly given the often quasi-absolutist nature of First Amendment jurisprudence in the US. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, the Court claimed that

there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.

There are some obvious problems with this exception to free speech. First, it can’t work unless it’s possible to distinguish real lies from false statements of fact that are simple errors. This means it must be possible to determine someone’s intentions, and that’s always difficult. However, one could claim that a person’s speech rights can only be limited on account of lying when his or her intentions are clear.

That would save the exception, but it wouldn’t undo some of its harmful consequences. People who speak in good faith may still be afraid that their speech will unwittingly come across as false, without their good intentions being absolutely clear. Hence, they may fear that they will run afoul of the law, and limit their speech preemptively. The lies exception to freedom of speech has therefore a chilling effect, an effect which is enhanced by the fuzzy nature of the difference between facts and opinions.

Given these problems with the lies exception to free speech, how could we instead argue in favor of free speech protection for lies and knowingly false statements of fact?

One rather ironic way to do it is to appeal to the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas: free speech is necessary for the pursuit of truth (or, in a weaker form, for the improvement of the quality of our ideas). John Stuart Mill has the canonical quote:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

As such, this doesn’t really justify the acceptance of expressions of lies. If we need lies to see the truth more clearly, you could also say that we need evil to see the good more clearly, and few I guess would accept the latter statement. However, if we interpret this quote liberally (pun intended), we may get somewhere. We could argue that someone’s lies can motivate others to search for, investigate and disseminate the truth. For example, I think it’s fair to say that holocaust deniers have done a lot for holocaust education. They have given teachers and researchers a hook.

Another reason why we wouldn’t want to prohibit lying, at least not across the board, is the fact that lies are often necessary for the protection of human rights. This is the case that’s made in jest in the cartoon on the right, and is also the origin of the rejection of Kant’s claim that we shouldn’t lie to the murderer inquiring about the location of his intended victim. (I have an older post about the usefulness of lying here).

Obviously, nothing said here implies that lying is generally beneficial or that it should be welcomed and protected whatever the circumstances. If lying becomes the norm, we will most likely lose our humanity. In the words of Montaigne, “we are men, and hold together, only by our word” and our civilization and systems of cooperation would come crashing down if we can’t generally trust each other. However, the general albeit not exceptionless moral good of telling the truth doesn’t translate into a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth (and to shut up if we can’t). Mortality and human rights don’t completely overlap.

If lying were to become the normal habit, free speech would lose its meaning. We have free speech rights precisely because we want to share information, opinions and beliefs, and because we want to learn and pay attention to verbal assertions. There has to be some level of general trust that people speak their minds rather than the opposite. Otherwise it’s better if there’s no speech at all, and hence also no right to free speech. Hence, the free speech defense of lying has to be limited somewhere.

That is why, despite the fact that in general there shouldn’t be a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth, we do want some cases in which there is such a right and such a duty. Lying is legitimately prohibited in the case of libel, of witnesses testifying under oath, of someone impersonating a doctor etc. But those are cases of different rights having to be balanced against each other: the free speech rights of the liars against the rights of those suffering harmful consequences when people lie (consequences such as bad medical treatment, miscarriages of justice etc.). The duty of government officials and elected politicians to tell the truth is based on the requirement of democratic transparency, and is therefore also a case of balancing rights: democracy is a human right, and democracy can’t function if there’s no transparency and if people in power don’t tell the truth about what they are doing.


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