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A Special Burden for Politicians: Liars

Since I’m a journalist and not an attorney, I wondered why President Obama has not hauled people into court who accuse him of outrageous acts. Once I started thinking about Obama accusers, I recalled that the president has been the target of a range of charges including allegations about his birthplace, religion, political affiliations, patriotism, tax policies, terrorism, infanticide and attitude toward seniors. He is not the only person in high office who has been pummeled with wild and baseless charges.

I know that the First Amendment to the Constitution affords many protections to speakers and writers. But the exposure of public figures to lying extremists or to those with distorted political agendas who spread malignancies demands some recourse. I read that Franklin D. Roosevelt had brought criminal action against the editor of the Providence Journal and sought to recover $500,000 when Roosevelt was a candidate for Vice President in 1920. The editor had charged the candidate with destroying or sequestering Navy Department records when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

But that was 44 years before the landmark 1964 NY Times v Sullivan decision of the U.S. Supreme Court changed the ease with which public figures could sue entities who had circulated false information. The trick now would be for the plaintiff to prove actual malice, that the defendant knowingly made those false statements or that they were made in reckless disregard for whether they were true or not. Apparently, based on how few such lawsuits have been forthcoming since then, that’s not easy to do. Or perhaps it’s too expensive, too distracting, or too time consuming.

Although the 1964 high court decision allowed free reporting of the civil rights campaign in the South, and although it supports freedom of the press, public figures are at a huge disadvantage. The burden of proving what is inside the liar’s head when that lie is told is close to impossible. Now I’m not surprised that President Obama and his predecessors for the last 45 years have chosen not to fight their tormenters in court.

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Avatar for user 'sallytav'

sallytav | April 2, 2010 at 10:09 a.m. ― 6 years, 12 months ago

Are you stating that we should not exercise our right of Free Speech? If that is so, than please choose between living where you do not have free speech instead of here in the United States!! If we did not have free speech, you would not be allowed to write your blog!!

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Avatar for user 'reader1'

reader1 | April 2, 2010 at 11:02 a.m. ― 6 years, 12 months ago

It is very hard for me to know who to believe, when blatant lies cannot be challenged without unreasonable expenses or years of time. This is true in the political world as well as in consumerism. What ever happened to truth in advertising? I used to have some faith in the truth of what I heard on a variety of media. Now I do not know what to believe.

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Avatar for user 'KeiMari'

KeiMari | April 2, 2010 at 3:43 p.m. ― 6 years, 12 months ago

I'm positive this isn't an argument against free speech and I wish people would stop leaping up and calling others using *their* right to free-speech ungrateful, especially when that is hardly at the heart of the matter of what they’re discussing. I do believe there's a big difference between the right to state your opinions and malicious slander. It's a shame that people seem to *want* that line blurred more and more every day...

Anyway, thank you for clearing that up, Gloria Penner. I was wondering why it had been so long since citizens in public office utilized the same anti-defamation rights the rest of us get to enjoy.

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Avatar for user 'Stan522'

Stan522 | April 25, 2010 at 9:51 a.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago

I contend, it’s a wonder why the American public hasn’t brought lawsuits against politicians for promising and not delivering, stretching the truth and outright lying. Yes, I understand in politics, they can say more, and be less truthful and legally get away with it. This just makes it more difficult to learn and understand the truth for us all.

In my lifetime, I have seen a steady decline in tolerance, truth and civility from those on the left and the right. Ever since republicans went after Clinton, Monica and the stained blue dress, it’s been a ping-pong match at who can be more vehement. Democrats took the Clinton attack as a personal attack. Bush stole an election (in the opinion of democratic leaders) and was called a nazi, and of course he was the “liar-in-chief” for getting us into war. Now we have obama….. Let the battle begin. I think there is legitimate gripes on both sides to some extent, but the calling of patriotic Americans “racists” who have awakened politically and have major objections to corporate bail-outs, runaway spending of our government and the taking over of private industry (which will lead to higher taxation and hyper inflation) is simply wrong.

I think your next article should be on reasons why we should be suing politicians. If they had to live by the same legal standards as business have to, they all would be in jail.

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Avatar for user 'Stan522'

Stan522 | April 25, 2010 at 9:53 a.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago

Here is a joke for all of you. It sums up how politics works in our country:

While walking down the street one day a US senator is tragically hit by a
truck and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the
entrance. 'Welcome to heaven,' says St. Peter. 'Before you settle in, it
seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts,
you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.' 'No problem, just let me
in,' says the senator. 'Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher
up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in Heaven. Then
you can choose where to spend eternity.' 'Really, I've made up my mind. I
want to be in heaven,' says the senator. 'I'm sorry, but we have our rules.'

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down,
down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green
golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are
all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is
very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and
reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of
the people. They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster,
caviar and champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who has a good
time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that
before he realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty
farewell and waves while the elevator rises ... The elevator goes up, up, up
and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him.

'Now it's time to visit heaven.' So, 24 hours pass with the senator joining
a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp
and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours
have gone by and St. Peter returns. 'Well, then, you've spent a day in hell
and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.' The senator reflects for a
minute, then answers: 'Well, I would never have said it before, I mean
heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.'

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to
hell. Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a barren
land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in
rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls
from above... The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his

'I don't understand,' stammers the senator. 'Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?' The devil looks at him, smiles and says....... 'Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted!'

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Avatar for user 'Gloria Penner'

Gloria Penner | April 25, 2010 at 1:09 p.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago

In response to Stan522 suggesting a topic for my next blog, I don't yet know the KPBS timetable for when I'll be continuing the Political Fix blogs. Our entire news operation is being expanded and reconformed. So for the moment, Political Fix is on hold on the web, but still going strong on KPBS radio, usually sometime between 9 am and 11 am on Wednesdays. However, I will be writing monthly blogs to commemorate the station's 50th anniversary. These will be memories of my experiences at KPBS. The 50th anniversary web page should be published soon. Meanwhile, I really enjoyed Stan522's "joke." What a sad message it sent.

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