Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Video Now Available: A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars and the First Amendment (Free Speech Battles)

Thursday, April 22, 2021 - 10:45am

View the video here.

IN HER UPCOMING BOOK, A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, CATHERINE J. ROSS examines the tension between the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and the need to combat the spread of lies that endanger democracy. Verifiable factual falsehoods are rife throughout the public square today, but former President Donald J. Trump’s unparalleled mendacity and its consequences for the nation – measured in threats to electoral legitimacy, COVID-19 deaths, and economic devastation – highlighted the urgent need to confront deception. Using dramatic stories and cases – from a false Medal of Honor claimant, to birtherism and misuse of defamation claims, to lies in political campaigns – Ross explains why the First Amendment’s guarantee of freewheeling democratic debate means that the Constitution protects most lies. The state, courts hold, cannot become the arbiter of what is true or false, not least because it can often prove impossible to agree on what amounts to falsehood. Despite the obstacles to regulating public falsehoods in most settings, Ross argues that a mendacious president’s power to damage the body politic, and indeed society as a whole, poses a danger that justifies overriding a liar’s speech rights. The First Amendment, she argues, is not the problem when it comes to presidential lies: lack of political will, abdication of congressional responsibility, and broader societal fault lines undermine potential solutions. Ross analyzes a question that first came up when Congress threatened President Richard Nixon with impeachment for, among other things, lying to the American public. On what grounds can a president be impeached for lies that do not violate any law? The question arose again with Presidents Clinton and Trump but has never been scrutinized or answered until now. Ross proposes an approach consistent with First Amendment doctrine and the separation of powers: presidents work for us, they are subject to the lesser speech rights applicable to government employees, and Congress should use its oversight authority to hold the president to a standard of truth.