Why Allow Lies?

Jonathan Turley wants to keep lies legal:

Alvarez … is a liar. … After his election to a water board in California, he introduced himself at a public meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years,” a repeatedly wounded warrior and a Medal of Honor recipient. … He was found out, publicly ridiculed and hounded out of office. … [He is] one of the first people prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, … [which] makes it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” …

The problem with the law they may have broken is not just that it is unnecessary, but that it can be dangerous to criminalize lies. After all, with the power to punish a lie comes the power to define the truth — a risky occupation for any government. … Now the [Alvarez] case will go to the Supreme Court, where the Obama administration will argue that the First Amendment does not protect lies as it does true statements. …

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski balked at the notion that lies can be crimes in a society saturated by untruths. “Saints,” he noted, “may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying.” Kozinski is supported by a host of studies on the human propensity, even necessity, to lie. … The dividing line in the law has always been fraud or related crimes — using lies to gain money or benefits. … But the Stolen Valor Act was designed to address cases in which the individual is not deriving financial gain or other benefits; rather, the law punishes the boast or the brag itself. …

If it is harmful to lie about soldiers, what about lying about being a former police officer or a former firefighter? How about lying about politicians or religion or terrorism? Once we criminalize lies, someone must determine what is a lie and what is harmless embellishment. … The First Amendment protects … the right of everyone to speak, even when they may be called liars. As for our heroes, they are no more diminished by pathetic pretenders than top singers are diminished by bad karoke. We know the real thing when we see it. (more)

Turley’s arguments are surprisingly weak. We needn’t let government set the truth on all topics to outlaw very clear cases of lying. Lies being common in social talk doesn’t require us to legalize all lies. We surely do not all instantly “know they real thing when we see it.” Even if the harm from lies isn’t monetary, it is clearly real harm. And we already outlaw non-monetary lies to the government.

This seems to me more about feeling that a line has been crossed, such as with a sense of appropriate social spheres. In sex and friendship, we seem to prefer that those who are not socially savvy or well-connected suffer from lies by those who are more clever and connected, at least relative to letting law get involved. It is mainly when we see dominance, via money, business, or government, that we want to outlaw lies.

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