The Supreme Courts is hearing a case that involves a First Amendment challenge to an Ohio law that makes it a crime to “disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”
During the 2010 elections, the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life advocacy group, published ads in Ohio claiming that then-Rep. Steven Driehaus supported taxpayer-funded abortions (because he had voted for the Affordable Care Act). Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission over the ads. The SBA List challenged the constitutionality of the law, which is now before the Supreme Court.
In support of the SBA List, P.J. O’Rourke, humorist and national treasure, contributed to an amicus brief defending our constitutional right to “truthiness”:
In modern times, “truthiness”—a “truth” asserted “from the gut” or because it “feels right,” without regard to evidence or logic —is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it.
After all, where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we’d be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.
O’Rourke’s co-author, legal scholar Ilya Shapiro, explains the reasoning behind the brief:
We ask the Court a simple yet profound question: Doesn’t the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protect one man’s truth even if it happens to be another man’s lie? And who’s to judge—and on what scale—when a statement slides “too far” into the realm of falsehood?
However well intentioned Ohio legislators may have been, laws that criminalize “false” speech don’t replace truthiness and snark with high-minded ideas and “just the facts.” Instead, they chill speech, replacing the sort of vigorous political dialogue that’s at the core of the democratic process with silence. The Supreme Court of all institutions should understand that just because a statement isn’t fully true, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in public discourse. Moreover, pundits and satirists are much-better placed to evaluate and send-up half-truths than government agencies.
Even those of us who aren’t fans of “truthiness” have to admit that it might not be optimal to allow politicians to decide whose truth should be allowed in the public square. Politicians, as history has shown, aren’t always the best judges of truth (see: John 18:38).
Note: If you’re unclear on what an amicus brief is all about, see this explainer post.