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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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