If you read closely, you can almost glean a laugh track from the transcripts (pdf) of the oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court on Tuesday in the political lying case, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The justices sprayed gentle ridicule and subtle sarcasm on Ohio State Solicitor Eric E. Murphy as he attempted to defend a state law that bans false statements during a political campaign.
Uniform enforcement of the Ohio law — and the dozen and a half other similar state laws — would reduce our political campaigns to what? Three or four months of observed silence before each Election Day?
Aside from money, nothing is more integral to a political campaign than lies. Campaigns lie about the other campaigns; they lie about their own positions, too. They lie about the consequences of the legislation and policies they propose. They lie in their speeches, they lie in their campaign literature, and they lie on TV, radio, on billboards, and over the Internet. Lies, integral as they are to campaigns, can’t be exterminated unless you snuff the campaigns themselves.
I rise to the defense of political lying not because I’m a liar. Well, I am a liar — but I’m so terrible at it that I limit my mendacity to stretching the truth only, making me a non-lying liar. My complete defense of political lying would, of course, fold in the criticisms expressed in Tuesday’s oral arguments, namely that such statutes suppress free speech and political speech during a political campaign. And who wants to trust a bunch of state bureaucrats to determine, during the heat of a campaign, which side is telling the truth?
My position is more basic and more principled than the one the justices seem to be carving out. In the American tradition, some campaigns seem almost completely composed of exaggerations, fabrications, and unbelievable promises and pledges.