Editorial: Truth and Consequences: Government’s Role in Punishing Lies

Everyone lies. It’s human nature, so much so that anyone who says, “I always tell the truth” is automatically exposed as untrustworthy. Small lies or whoppers, white lies or diabolical deceptions — they are as unavoidable as death and taxes.

In certain realms, though, we demand honesty, passing laws to require it. False claims are a form of fraud, which is not allowed when you’re selling a car, advertising a medicine, applying for a mortgage or reporting your income to the tax collector. Perpetrators can be fined or imprisoned or both.

But when the government gets into the business of policing truth, it poses a threat to liberty that has to be carefully contained. Two Supreme Court decisions that came down Monday illustrate a sensible approach to that matter.

In the first case, a unanimous court agreed to allow a legal challenge to an Ohio statute that forbids false statements about candidates for office. During the 2010 campaign, an anti-abortion group issued a news release charging that then-Rep. Steve Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortion. The group tried to rent a billboard to publicize that claim. The billboard company refused to accept the ad after Driehaus threatened to go to court. A panel of the Ohio Elections Commission found probable cause to believe the group, the Susan B. Anthony List, had broken the law.

That group and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes sued to get the law overturned as an infringement on free speech. The court ruled Monday that the legal challenge may proceed: “Denying prompt judicial review would impose a substantial hardship on petitioners, forcing them to choose between refraining from core political speech on the one hand” and risking “criminal prosecution on the other.” The way the justices framed the issue suggests they will be highly skeptical of the law’s constitutionality.

They were more divided on another issue involving truth and falsity, ruling against a Virginia man who bought a gun for his uncle with money provided by his uncle. Since he was buying from a licensed firearms dealer, Bruce Abramski had to attest that he was not acquiring the weapon for someone else — and sign a statement indicating he knew that making a false claim is a crime.

These requirements are intended to prevent “straw purchasers” from obtaining weapons for people who are legally barred from owning them. Abramski eventually pleaded guilty to violating the law, but challenged his conviction on the ground that the lie was immaterial, because his uncle, Angel Alvarez, was legally eligible to buy the gun. (Abramski, a former cop, hoped to get it at a police discount.)

But the court, by a 5-4 vote, rejected his argument, because it would make a joke of the federal law barring felons and mentally ill persons from buying guns from licensed dealers. All they would have to do is pay someone else to buy guns for them. The law would be practically meaningless.

That the uncle could have bought the gun legally was novel but not important. “Abramski’s false statement was material because had he revealed that he was purchasing the gun on Alvarez’s behalf, the sale could not have proceeded under the law,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan. Had the dealer “realized it was in fact selling a gun to Alvarez, it would have had to stop the transaction.”

If ineligible gun customers could evade the law so easily, the federal government would be helpless to enforce its own rules against letting clearly dangerous people acquire firearms. That might be fine with some gun-rights extremists. If so, they are welcome to try to change the law to give guns to ex-cons.

What is clear from these and other Supreme Court decisions is that the government does not have broad authority to prosecute garden-variety lying. Specific types of lies, however, may be prohibited in order to prevent plausible, tangible harms. The firearms regulation qualifies.

A general interest in stamping out lies does not — particularly when it involves political campaigns, where the value of free speech is at its highest and where uninhibited debate protects listeners against deception. That’s why the court is willing to let the Ohio ban be challenged.

As the court said in 2012 in another case, “Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.” Prosecuting someone for making dubious charges against a political candidate is Orwellian. Prosecuting someone for lying to evade a federal gun law is just common sense.

Chicago Tribune