Once The Lord gets around to His prohibitions in The 10 Commandments, He is consistently direct and specific: Thou shalt not Kill, Steal, Commit Adultery…and then there’s Commandment #9, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Notice it is NOT “Thou shalt not lie.” Don’t lie in public in ways that are likely to cause pain, strife, instability. Lesser lies than that? Well, God does not demand the impossible.
People lie. Some people lie a lot; most people lie some time; almost no one never has told a lie. Lying, many psychologists suspect, may be part of human nature.
Americans lie, and here’s what The Constitution and the First Amendment say about lying: nothing.
Of course, we do have laws against public lies meant to wound or slander, but here’s The Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Principle of the American Constitution is “Freedom;” Freedom from any state religion, freedom to “exercise” the religion of your choice, freedom of speech, and of the press and the people’s right to assemble and petition their government, but only if it is done peaceably.
There is no such civil limitation on the exercise of speech and press freedom. And no mention of truth or lies. This is one of those times where silence speaks volumes.
So, I’m guessing the Amendment says that the Founders wanted free speech protections to apply to lies as well as blessings and truths.
It’s not that these Original Politicians weren’t familiar with lies in public and private speech and publication. Many of them had been attacked by newspapers which were partisan rags created to lie — to glorify or enrich their backers and defame their enemies. But their first Constitutional clarification was to tell Congress to lay off.
Because, the authors of our Constitution believed in the triumph of truth. They believed that lies cannot and should not be government’s concern, that free debate and application of the facts will refute and defeat lies and liars.
That was then. This is now.
Now is a NY Times story that traces how a lying invention, twisting fired FBI Director James Comey’s Congressional testimony, bled from its launch online by a single professional provocateur across right-wing websites like Breitbart to Rush on the radio and FoxNews TV. For many Americans, the lie will stick even though its falsity was endlessly proved.
Many of the same researchers who think lying is human nature, also think it is human nature to believe lies. They add, we believe, because we have to, because trust in truth is what keeps people and societies together.
The same idea was put another way by Minnesota Senator Al Franken in his new book, mischievously titled, Giant of the Senate: ”if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore … reasonable political discourse … If you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”
Yudhijit Battacharjee is an acclaimed writer covering the topics of science, espionage, medicine, and cybercrime for outlets including The New Yorker, New York Times, and Science. His recent book, The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell, is a New York Times bestseller.