Truth, and Trust, in Government.

“I do solemnly swear to tell the truth…”

The first amendment does not give blanket protection to all speech. For example: you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, when there is no fire. Why? Because doing so could cause panic, and harm the people in the theater.

So why are our government officials and their representatives allowed to say or write things they know to be untrue, even when doing so causes harm to us and to our democracy? Yes, harm. Singly and cumulatively, the untruths damage the credibility of all government officials and, over time, erode the people’s confidence in both the government and its representatives. Doesn’t that ultimately break the covenant which gives our government its legitimacy and empowers it to act on our behalf? What could be more harmful to us and to our country than the delegitimization of our government and its representatives? While we may not be there, now; this is the path our country is on.

This is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it something done on only one side of the political spectrum. Do the research; google Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Starr Report (Clinton/Lewinsky). Those scandals happened far enough in the past that they have been studied exhaustively by scholars and pundits, so there are plenty of sources. If you filter out the academic gobbledygook and the partisan diatribes, you will find that they all have one thing in common: an elected or appointed government official did something wrong or illegal…then lied to cover it up. In cases where lies were spoken or written under oath, there were legal consequences; in instances where lies were spoken or written outside of legal proceedings (and therefore, not under oath), there were no legal repercussions.

Today’s instant information environment — 24-hour opinion and news blasts, social media, blogs, live press conferences, and so forth — has made the problem much worse because the untruths are immediately propagated far beyond their original forum, intensifying the harm they do. And this frustrates thoughtful citizens of all political stripes. Yes, this is something we can agree on. So let’s take advantage of this common ground and do something about it.

Proposal:

“Everyone who works for any part of any government (federal, state or local), whether elected or appointed, paid or unpaid, must, prior to the assumption of their duties, swear an oath to tell the truth (the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) in all communication, spoken or written, upon penalty of perjury; the general perjury statute under Federal law will provide the legal framework and define the penalties. This requirement will also apply to anyone who works (paid or unpaid) for an elected or appointed official (e.g. aide, pollster, campaign worker, etc.), even if they are not paid directly from government funds.”

Perjury only applies to statements of fact; opinions or conclusions drawn from those facts would remain protected as free speech. So there is no loss of liberty, unless you believe that government officials and their representatives have a right to lie to us (though they may argue this point). This proposal could be implemented as a statute, but that would require politicians to act against their perceived self-interest. More likely, a constitutional amendment would be needed — a difficult, but not impossible process. Either way, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

This proposal would not fix everything; targets a single problem. The text can be refined, and, certainly, lawyers must have their say on the wording. But this proposal, or something very like it, would be an important first step in restoring the people’s trust in our political system, and in our government.