Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire!

Is lying against the law?

Technically, yes, if you are under oath, but what of other lies, the small and great ones we tell every day?  At stake is a Constitutional issue worth exploring.

We all lie. Recently, a judge in San Francisco defended the right to lie as a basic free-speech issue, explaining in some 35 easons why we avoid telling the truth. He cited among others protecting our rivacy (No, I really don’t live here); making others feel good (Have you been
going to the gym?); avoiding recriminations (Really, it only cost $20); and voiding hurting the feelings of others (It’s not you, it’s me.)  His last reason—and a sweet one it is—was
protecting innocence (The tooth fairy will come tonight.)

Now take an inveterate liar ike Xavier (or Javier) Alvarez. He told big ones. Alvarez lied about serving n Vietnam and being decorated. There are laws against this, namely the Stolen Valor Act which specifically targets those who would falsely claim military heroism.  Alvarez did just that: After winning a seat on the board of directors of a California water district, he claimed to be a retired Marine who was wounded in combat and subsequently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Bussssted.

Alvarez was charged and convicted, but a district judge overturned the conviction citing freedom of speech issues. In 1964, a landmark free-speech case found that “false speech is
not subject to a blanket exemption from constitutional protection.” According to the Washington Post, “as recently as last year… the court’s list of ‘well-defined’ unprotected speech included only ‘obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct.”  Dissenting judges disagree, claiming that false statements of fact are not
protected by the First Amendment.

Here’s what I think is interesting. Laws, quite often, are enacted precisely to exonerate the
truth-teller and punish the liar.  As a matter of fact, aren’t most legal issues matters of he-said/she-said? Granted, it’s not often that simple and the line dividing truth from false can be a very faint one.  But think of most serious crimes—murder, assault, robbery, rape. Isn’t it the word of one against that of another? 

It’s hard to imagine a world where day-to-day lying might be really punished. Relationships would end before starting, and even the simplest of promise would become a contractual quagmire.  Intent, rather than actual statements would then be at the heart of any legal argument. Did the defendant really mean what he said, or was he lying through his teeth? If the former—he thought he was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—he’s innocent. If he was embroidering or knowingly misleading others, off to the pokey with

I could go either way. I recall reading a while back about a turn-of-the-century situation where a man became in intimate with a woman after promising marriage. After the act, though, he reneged. He was found guilty of breach of promise and, if I remember correctly, forced to wed the lady, perhaps not the best outcome for either party.


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