Nel's New Day

February 23, 2012

Is It Lying or ‘Puffing’

Puffing. That’s the term that we used for smoking a cigarette for most of my life. Now, thanks to Supreme Court Antonin Scalia, the word has a new definition. Yesterday the court discussed the constitutionality of the 2006 Stolen Valor Act which makes lying about having military honors a crime. During their exchange, justices voiced concern about laws that would potentially cause politicians and others to be indicted for lies and “exaggerations” about accomplishments or failures—false college degrees, extra-marital affairs, etc.

“In the commercial context, we allow a decent amount of lying. It’s called puffing. So maybe we allow a certain amount of puffing in political speech as well. Nobody believes all that stuff, right?” That’s Scalia’s take on whether political lies are acceptable.

Let’s take Newt Gingrich’s response to ads about his ethics violations during his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives. “I was exonerated in every single case,” he said. After being charged, Gingrich agreed to pay $300,000 and admit he had “engaged in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives.” During the investigation, he submitted letters from his lawyers for which “the [House ethics] subcommittee was unable to find any factual basis.” Committee members stated that Gingrich “should have known” that the information in the letters “was inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable.” (Scalia would probably say that he was “puffing.”)

After the ethics committee voted 7 to 1 to reprimand him and require a $300,000 penalty, the full House passed the committee report by 395 to 28. Does this pass the Scalia test that nobody would believe Gingrich? I’m guessing not. When he claims that he was completely exonerated, millions of Americans nod their heads in agreement, thankful that the people accusing him of these ethics charges are wrong.

What about a state representative in Indiana, Bob Morris, who refuses to sign a resolution recognizing the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary because it is a “radicalized organization” that is “quickly becoming a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood” and that its agenda “includes sexualizing young girls” and promoting “homosexual lifestyles.” Morris’ lies has led to loss of members, meeting places, and status for the Girl Scouts because people believe him.

Jonathan Libby, a lawyer arguing against making lying illegal because of constitutionally-mandated free speech, said the law should not criminalize speech unless it “causes imminent harm to another person” or the government. He explained that laws against fraud and perjury were constitutional because those lies caused harm. The question here is the definition of “harm.”

Hundreds of politicians were elected in 2010 because they lied about their aims and goals. With their newfound power, they switched lanes from improving the economy and getting people jobs to their program of restricting people from voting, eradicating unions and fair wages, eliminating women’s reproductive rights, etc.–in short, doing harm. Now fewer than a couple of dozen people are providing over $100 million to “puff” about candidates, skewing the election in the way that they want.

Can a car salesperson justify lies about the condition of a used car by the new definition of “puffing”? Or would “free speech” justify lying about the condition of a house to a prospective purchaser?

Many years ago, I tried to smooth over a situation between a good friend and her young daughters by “puffing.” My friend firmly said, “I don’t lie to my children!” It was a great lesson in parenting that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a lesson that politicians have never learned. Their speeches show that they not only “shade the truth” but also openly lie about situations, knowing that they can persuade many people that what they say is factual.

Last night during the debate about whether women deserved contraception, the Republican presidential candidates talked about how our current culture is tragic because of “immorality.” I claim that lying to the people is also a form of “immorality.” How sad that a judge in the highest court of the United States would justify lying by the country’s leaders because we are not supposed to believe anything that they say.

The next time anyone accuses you of lying, just tell them that Scalia says you’re just “puffing.”


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