So a lie can be free speech? Seriously?

Wednesday , June 25, 2014 - 5:06 PM


I lied. So did my sister. It was a pact between sisters. We knew if we were going to get away with it, we had to tell an absolutely blatant lie. Like so many big lies, it started with a little one. We told our folks we were going to a church dance. It was a dance, minus the church part. The evening wore on, we danced with a couple of guys, and then we noticed that the band was noticing us. So we sidled that way and made friends. With the band members. Creepy.

The band had a two-night gig in town, so they invited us to the next night’s dance. They wanted us to hang around while they played, and then go ‘do something’ (their words) afterwards. Sounded like great fun to a couple of really, really naïve teens. The trick, of course, was convincing our parents to let us go. They wouldn’t believe two church dances in a row, so we told them we were invited to go to another dance by friends. Which, technically, was a true statement, but so fraught with deceit that it really couldn’t pass as anything but a lie. And bless his heart, Dad smelled something fishy. He asked questions, we tried to answer, he asked more questions, we told more of the truth, and at the end of the discussion, we not only weren’t going to the dance — we were grounded. For lying. (And no doubt, to protect us.)

Our lives were ruined. Here we had a chance to go ‘do something’ with people famous enough to play in a band, and we were grounded. Since we had no way to notify our new friends we weren’t coming, we were certain they were inconsolable. We wondered if they’d even have the heart to go ahead and play without us there. (Remember where I said “really, really naïve”?).

It took a long time for us to forgive our dad. But looking back on it, I shudder to think what might have been if he hadn’t been in tune to our lies. Back then, a lie was an untruth. It was a dishonest statement that had no place in the daily give and take of life. No matter the consequences, people were expected to tell the truth. Lies, and those who told them, were unacceptable in a decent society.

I’m explaining all that in past tense because I recently read that the Supreme Court is wrestling with the “right to lie.” Yes, that’s what I said. The “right to lie,” as in the Supreme Court is trying to decide if lying should be protected as free speech.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one. Apparently I’m not the only one. Even the Court is confused. It heard two cases, and in one upheld the right to lie, while in the other case struck down the right to lie. I’m glad they’re confused. This shouldn’t be easy.

The first case has to do with lying in political campaign ads. (An abnormality, of course.) A group made false statements about an opponent in the quagmire of a political campaign, then claimed First Amendment free speech rights when challenged by that opponent. The Court upheld their right to challenge the state law that prohibits politicians from making blatantly false campaign statements. Clearly it’s time to upgrade our campaign rhetoric filters, because this development could take mudslinging to a whole new art form.

The second case has to do with someone buying a gun for someone else, and lying about it. That was ruled by the Court to be the kind of lie that shouldn’t be protected. So the First Amendment cannot be used to exercise the Second Amendment if a lie is involved. Glad to see the Court draw the line somewhere — and no surprise where they drew it.

Stepping back to look at this through larger glasses, the question still remains, why is the judicial branch of the government involved in deciding when a person can or cannot tell a lie?

Does the idea of a government branch making those kinds of choices bother anyone else? Some of the country’s most legendary lies have come from that sector. Think of Nixon, staring at the camera as he insisted, “I am not a crook.” Ponder Clinton’s infamous, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Fast forward to recent times. How about, “You can keep your health care professional,” or “The IRS does not target people for audits on the basis of their political leanings,” or, “We’ve lost the emails, we can’t get them back.”

Uh huh.

I’d rather have just about anyone else but this group decide when a lie is a lie. In fact, I think we should turn it over to kids under 10 years old, because I asked a couple of them, one at a time, “What is a lie?” and every single one of them said, “It’s when you say something that isn’t true.”

Can a group of adult justices honestly do any better than that?

I said, “Honestly.”

You can contact D. Louise Brown at

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