The Supreme Court will soon hear a case that challenges an Ohio law which makes it a crime to lie about a political candidate in almost any way, whether what was said/printed is false or not. This law, in place since 1995, is being challenged by the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life PAC, on the basis that it violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
They are absolutely right.
The First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech." If my speech is a blatant lie about someone, then so be it. How it even got up to the Supreme Court is a sad reflection on the state of free speech in modern America. This should be an open and shut case and I will be very interested to see how the voting turns out on this one.
One of my awesome readers, an Ohioan herself, wrote to me regarding slander and libel, saying that they are illegal because they defame and damage a person; they are blatant deliberate lies. This produced a further discussion that had two parts.
First, though slander and libel are both detestable, I still think you should be free to do either. I don’t defend the speech or the lies themselves, I defend the right for someone to print or say them. There is a subtle, but very important difference between supporting a right and supporting what is produced by that right. That is a distinction that unfortunately seems to be wholly lost in the political discourse of our day.
I also want to acknowledge the distinction between criminal and civil law, especially in regards to this particular case. Civil law seeks to redress a wrong, whereas criminal law seeks to punish a crime. I am perfectly fine with a civil suit being brought as a result of libel or slander because maliciously lying is wrong and deserves redress. I am, however, against imposing criminal penalties because the First Amendment, irrespective of truth, protects our right to say it.
[sharequote align="center"]I don’t defend the speech or the lies, I defend the right for someone to print or say them.[/sharequote]
Second, and probably more importantly, this unconstitutional law is the epitome of the struggle of the state to legislate decency and morality, and exemplifies why it is entirely necessary to have a moral and decent people if we are to remain free. That sentiment, while I wish I could claim it as my own, has been repeated by many of our founders:
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." – John Adams
"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt." – Sam Adams
"The primary objects of government are the peace, order, and prosperity of society. . . . To the promotion of these objects, particularly in a republican government, good morals are essential." – Oliver Ellsworth, Supreme Court Chief Justice
"It is certainly true that a popular government cannot flourish without virtue in the people." – Richard Henry Lee, signer of Declaration of Independence
It has been repeatedly recognized that freedom in a nation will only last so long as the morals of that nation are secure and strong. Our liberty and the free use of our God given rights, comes with the responsibility to use them in a moral and virtuous way. If people have morals enough to know that lying is wrong, and they exercise their rights within those morals, then there is no reason for government to create laws to prohibit things like slander and libel. This is the essence of self-governance – governing yourself so that no one else needs to.
Man must be governed by something. It is the basis for a civil society that has progressed beyond primitive reactions to our base instincts and desires. In a society and government based on liberty, we have a choice – to be governed from within, or to be governed from without. As Robert Winthrop, a former Speaker of the House said:
"Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet."
To self-govern, to use your rights responsibly and decency is to control yourself by a power within, whether religious based or not. But as the enjoyment of rights becomes more and more untethered to the morals and responsibilities that should guide them, then we are no longer self-governing and shall be ruled by another master – the government and law. As Benjamin Franklin put it:
"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."
As long as the free exercise of rights continues without the restraint of self-governance, then laws that infringe upon those very rights will not only stay, but multiply. If we are to remain a free nation dedicated to the liberal exercise of our rights, then we must commit to choosing the master within, making the government master from without, unnecessary.
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