Should candidates or groups say whatever they want about an opponent, issue or themselves and have it protected as a form of free speech? Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a group had a right to challenge an Ohio law banning false campaign statements. While case law suggests the law will be declared unconstitutional, there is a compelling argument that electoral lies ought not to receive First Amendment protection. There should be outer limits on what can be said in campaigns in order to promote democracy and the integrity of the electoral process. Lying is wrong; even children know it. Philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted that deceivers lie to make themselves an exception to a rule that they expect everyone else to follow. We live in a world where we conform actions, make judgments and act as if others were truthful. Liars profit by taking advantage of this trust. If trust did not exist, then business would never exist. Contracts would be meaningless, promises futile.
Prohibitions against lying are often legally enforced. Perjury is wrong and punishable by law. False advertising is regulated as deceptive. Lies distort the search for truth and the marketplace of ideas. In law, the adversarial system is supposed to discover the truth but that does not mean that witnesses can lie. Courts rely on all parties playing fairly and not lying. Lies make it difficult for juries to do their job. False advertising makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
Ethically there should be no debate that lying is wrong in politics. One should hope as a matter of personal virtue and integrity that this would be the case. But personal integrity is not always enough. American politics is littered with records of lies and deceptions, be it Bill Clinton’s false assertions about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth distorting John Kerry’s Vietnam record. Something more is needed to encourage personal integrity in politics.