In a famous Supreme Court ruling in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis said:
If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
In a perfect world, Brandeis is probably right. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Surely his imprecation against banning speech, cited by William Bennett Turner on February 20 in an OpEd piece “Is There a Right to Lie? in the New York Times, misses the point in our SuperPAC era.
Unlike his book “Figures of Speech,” Turner ignores the context of Citizen United in sounding a small note of alarm at the real erosion of civil liberties in America.
The real problem of lying in today’s society, though, is not when it’s about some crackpot individual claiming to have a medal that he doesn’t: Xavier Alvarez, focus of Turner’s OpEd officially admits he is a liar. In an election year, the real problem is when a highly funded political group, whose funders are anonymous, can place important lies into the public discourse at crucial moments when recourse is — for reasons of timing — impossible.
At the moment the Republican candidates jostling to become their party’s nominee are being attacked by a series of Republican SuperPACs. Politi-fact, and other fact checking organizations, have already found a number of “Pants on Fire” claims and that’s only intra-party squabbling, nine months before the election.
In his lampooning of the institution, Stephen Colbert has pointed out many of the paradoxes with SuperPACs: most notably how money is accrued, spent and coordinated. However, the core legal and philosophical problem with SuperPACs is that, unlike people, when they misbehave there is no way to hold either the perpetrators or the beneficiaries of their lies appropriately accountable. And, unlike fibbing about medals, which is lying, telling patent untruths about your opponent (or about any politician) is bearing false witness, and that’s one of the big 10 commandments.
Surely we don’t want an election cycle marked by constant and unaccountable transgressions of one of the ten Judeo-Christian principles that Pat Buchanan and whichever candidates appear on the ballot in November claim to hold so dear.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.