Do We Have a Right to Lie?

I’m not sure I ever mentioned this, but before I became a journalist I used to play centerfield for the New York Yankees.  Before that, I was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic.  But I couldn’t put up with the egos in the string section so I quit and became a world famous doctor who pioneered  heart transplant surgery.

Okay, I’m a liar.  Sue me.  Better yet, call the cops! You’ll be wasting your time, of course.  It’s not against the law to lie.  Except sometimes it is, as Xavier Alvarez found out.

Xavier Alvarez went around telling people that he played hockey for the Detroit Red wings, that he was married to a Mexican starlet, and that he rescued the American ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis.  None of that is true and the fact that Alvarez lied about it isn’t against the law.

Here’s what is, as explained in a New York Times op-ed by William Bennett Turner, who teaches a course on freedom of speech at the University of California at Berkeley:  “In 2007, while introducing himself at a meeting of a California water board, he said that he was a retired Marine who had been awarded the Medal of Honor (both lies).  He was quickly exposed as a phony and pilloried in the community and press as an ‘idiot’ and the ‘ultimate slime.’”

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government dragged Alvarez into court and prosecuted him under the Stolen Valor Act, which says you can’t falsely claim to have been awarded a military medal.  And if you say you won the Medal of Honor, you can go to prison for up to a year.  Alvarez was convicted but appealed to the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, which said the law is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

The case tis now before the U.S. Supreme Court.  But it’s not about whether the constitution gives us a right to lie.  It’s about how much power the federal government has over our lives.  It’s about whether the government can punish us if we say something that isn’t true about ourselves – even when our lie doesn’t hurt any particular individual; doesn’t cheat anyone; and doesn’t get in the way of the government doing its job.

Professor Turner says, “The court should rule in favor of Mr. Alvarez.  Harmless fibbing should not be a federal offense.”

Free speech, guaranteed under the First Amendment, of course, doesn’t mean we can say anything we want anytime we want.  You can yell “fire” all you want in your living room, but not in the proverbial crowded theater.  You can say your next-door neighbor is a bank robber and a child molester– to yourself and maybe even to your wife.  But if you go door to door and tell everyone on the block that lie, don’t expect the U.S. Constitution to protect you.

So there are limitations on free speech.  But should lying about being in the military and getting medals be counted among those limitations?  The government says the law serves an “important” government interest.  Lying about military medals cheapens both the meaning and the reputation of the medals, according to the government.   Maybe, but that’s going to be hard to prove.

Besides, as Professor Turner says, where will this end.  “If the Supreme Court were to accept the government’s argument, other disconcerting legislation could easily follow.  Congress could enact a law that criminalized false claims by political candidates about their qualifications for office, or false claims about their opponents.  Surely the government has an ‘important’ interest in preventing voter deception.”

Xavier Alvarez is a jerk, that’s for sure.  But do we really want jerks thrown into jail?  I’m with the professor on this one.  Liars will be found out.   They will be isolated and shunned. It is their reputation that will be tarnished, not the reputation of medals or the heroes who wear them.

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  • Satchsanders

    “If the Supreme Court were to accept the government’s argument, other
    disconcerting legislation could easily follow.  Congress could enact a
    law that criminalized false claims by political candidates about their
    qualifications for office, or false claims about their opponents. 
    Surely the government has an ‘important’ interest in preventing voter
    deception.”

    This would be terrible.  Imagine having to make a decision on who to vote for if we actually knew what their credentials were and what they stood for.  And not being able to lie about your opponent?… Don’t get me started.  If we can no longer make snap judgements of people we don’t like or agree with based on lies presented as fact, what will become of our beloved country!?!

  • TOMMY FREEDOM

    WHO LIES, SANDRA FLUKE AGE 23 NO 32, STUDENT
    NO POLITICAL ACTIVIST, DOES SHE HAVE SO MUCH SEX SHE CANT PAY FOR IT, NO ! A SHAM HEARING
    FOR BHO & PIGLOSI. THEY WANT TO UNDERMINE OUR LIBERTIES, RUSH BLEW THEIR SHOW TRIAL OUT OF THE WATER, BUT OF COURSE, NO MEDIA IS REPORTING THE REAL TRUTH.

  • Sue Nolan

    Yes! Telling the truth must have gone out when our country stopped being a Judeo-Christian nation. Even lying under oath gets pardoned–ask Bill Clinton. “Truth” and “honor” are no longer words on the political correct list. I believe the example should come from the top. We should demand the truth. Speaking of which, I think we, the people, have a right to see our President’s student loan form when he asked to borrow money as a foreign student, since his on-line birth certificate is still questionable. Cf. Recent investigations done by Joe Arpaio. (His paternal grandmother proudly said he was born in Kenya, didn’t she?) But then, Obama is a President of a nation where lying, even under oath, no longer has importance. George Washington must have turned over in his grave.

  • Richard Hilger

    What if someone lies when he says: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.” Shouldn’t that be criminal? I think it should.

  • joe from louisiana

    Leave it to the 9th Circuit. I disagree with you for once, Mr Goldberg. There is nothing absolute about the Bill of Rights and we all know that. The examples are too numerous to list but I find it curious how many people piously proclaim something is free speech but these same libs get their panties twisted over intellectual property rights. The Medal of Honor is a special case and I could argue that to lie about is a case of incitement. Because it makes me want to shoot them.

  • dan buckley

    When Obama took the oath of office,he lied,At least Alvarez showed some imagination.

  • Michael

    You all may have noticed an item in the news today about someone foiling a plot to kill Vlad Putin in Russia.

    “Why stop it?” you may ask. Well, the last thing we need right now is an unstable country full of nukes, so I stepped in and did my duty.

    Fortunately there were only four former Spetsnaz – now killers for hire – to deal with, and the fight only left me with a few bruises and I was still able to log onto Bernie’s site and let you all know I’m okay.

    I’ll probably get a Hero of Russia medal, but don’t look for it in the news. They can’t have an American publicly taking credit for saving the Russian prime minister and next (as well as former) president. So, all this is just between you and me.

  • TOMMY FREEDOM

    GOONESS & CURUPTION ARE EITHER ENCOURAGED OR
    DISCOURAGED. BHO IS SHOWING EVERYONE BAD EXAMPLE. SO FAR, HE HAS BEEN EXCUSED, I DONT
    KNOW WHY. IS THERE NO MAN TO STOP THIS TSUNAMI
    CORRUPTION. NOT ONE MAN OF COURAGE IN D.C.

  • Wil Burns

    If lying to an FBI agent is a federal crime (and it is) why would anyone talk to them?

  • Shirl

    I listened to the Supreme Court arguments also, Bernie and agree with you and the professor. This is indeed a slippery slope in which if you give the government an inch, they will take a million miles and free speech is one freedom we don’t want their sticky fingers touching. My ex-alcoholic boyfriend (Bernie) once claimed to be a viet-nam vet while eating a steak that didn’t exist on his plate. Idiots and despicable people like Alvarez make these kind of claims. We cannot build enough jails to hold them all.

  • Lawrence

    Bernie,, you are a great guy and great thinker, however I respectfully disagree. There are two types of matter in this world, like ” matter ” and anti-matter. ” Then there is relativity and “absoulutitvity.” When it comes to some American in the US military who gave his or her life, for the US, that is and absolute…because death is absolute. It is like lying about the death of oneself or a loved one and cashing in on the life insurance. It is ABSOLUTE fraud and will weakness us not as a neighborhood, or work place, but as a nation. It should be prosecuted to the fullest. Once in a while there is a line and the line is absolute. The nemesis of the US over the past 40 years is the almost imperceptible moving of the goal posts such that there is a new normal every few months or few years to the point where we won’t recognize ourselves and will no longer be ourselves. We are also being eaten apart from within by aplogyisms….we make apologies for the criminal, the rioter, the murderer, now for the flagrant liars. Soon we will run out of apologies because they will all have been used tens of thousands of times to our detriment.

    • Ron Kean

      There are two types of people in the world. Those who classify people into two types and those who don’t.

      • Lawrence

        I live in a world of classification as a critical care health care specialist; you would not want someone like me, or your airline pilot, or a SWAT Team member trying to come to your assistance, determining their actions based on mood, whim, feeling, etc. There are times for people who carry substantial responsibility to feel the sweat on their brow and be decisive. Right now, we have a leader in the WH who I am willing to bet, has never felt a bead of sweat on his brow unless he is smoking too much, and is incapable of being decisive…look abroad, loo here. If that is the world as you describe it, enjoy your comfort zone of mis-characterizing everyone into ” two types of people.” Then life becomes ever so simple….you are either hot or cold, good or bad, stingy or generous, no in-between….in fact there are many shades of gray and somewhere along the way, just like repainting your home, one has to put their foot down and say ” that’s enough gray….no more.” Thanks for your comment.

  • Sunnyr

    You had me, Bernie, until the “world famous Heart Surgeon.” lol!

    Thanks for my best chuckle of the day!

  • cc

    perhaps we all could compromise on this particular case. Make lying about a military medal or valorous service a Civil infraction rather than criminal. (just a thought)

    • mary frances ponder

      Liked this article so much! You really had me going at first and I said man….he was really something.
      Thxs. for all you do!

  • robin in fl

    I loved this article..The funny part was that when I started reading it I was thinking ,WOW..I didn’t know Bernie played for the NY Yankees and even when you said about being a conductor I was still believing you..hahaha,,BUT once you said you were a heart transplant surgeon I was like HUH??? and I even scrolled back up to see who was writing this article ,,yea you had me going for a second…

    I think the age of the internet has created even more liars that have reinvented themselves .and the thing is even when someone knows a person is lying ,most people will not call them out on the lie.(something I never had a problem doing),I met a guy once that claimed he was Vietnam vet and how horrible it was ..yea sure he was .The problem was he was 5 years younger then I was and I would have been too young to be in Vietnam,so I got tired of the BS and asked him if he was a child soldier over there.I reminded him of his age and the dates the war going on.Should have seen his face!For some reason he left rather abruptly, I wonder why???

    Well I still try not to lie ,but sometimes I do little fibs like when I tell people I have a good friend named Bernard Goldberg who is this really smart guy and famous journalist and has written all kinds of books and is on TV….yea well what can I say .so I’m a ‘name dropper” once in a while!!!!

    Thanks again for the good read Bernie,BTW I may not have mentioned it but I am a rocket scientist and astronaut!!!!! after all,this is the internet so why not? :)

  • Burton Chertok

    Bernie may be right as far as shunning scumbags who steal military valor and not incarcerating them but how are we to know to shun them. Perhaps anybody proven guilty of lying about military service and awards should be designated on an official data base of some sort such that it shows up on any computer search such as a credit check or job application check. The prospective lender or employer could then take the fact that there is a jerk making the application. Heck, if I’m ever made aware of such a thing, I wouldn’t give such a lowlife a damn thing.

  • Webmaster

    Bernie’s thoughts are always well written. Reading the article was as if watching water in a stream run down from where you first see it to where it disappears from view, noticing all the twists and turns reflected in the light against the shore, then the rocks, the images telling a unique struggle of one element against the other.

    There is another side to what Alvarez got away with that needs to be said. For instance, when someone lies about a very serious subject, such as being a Marine while acting in valor, then gets credit for it to be later found a liar, not only does it demean the man, as Bernie makes perfectly clear, but over time it can also demean the act itself.

    When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I don’t remember anyone lying about such things as doing heroic acts when serving in the military. If anyone dared to lie about their service, then caught, they knew they would be boycotted; the ultimate punishment felt every single day if one continued to live in the same community where they told the lie.

    But in a world of younger people that have been indoctrinated by hideous progressive educators who openly hate the military, the truth may not always matter.

    A perfect example is for those who approve of Obama running again for president, EVEN though they know for a fact he lied. These same Obama supporters may instead applaud men and women like Alvarez for their technique to not only get the attention but also then be rewarded for their boldness to do it. It turns those like Alvarez into what our newer society likes to view as their antiheroes.

    And when that happens, and it is happening all around us, we are all in trouble as a secure people.

  • Gena Taylor

    I agree, lies are bad, you answer to God but you should not be penalized other than your reputation being besmirched. I do not think people should be sent to jail for lying even about, well, damn near anything. Your given exceptions, lies that damage reputations, slander or libel, or lies that endanger lives, are punishable. Lies that cheapen medals, not. And I’m a vet, had a boy friend years ago with the Medal of Honor. I don’t think he would want people who lied about having one put into jail either, contrary to defense of freedom that earned him his Medal of Honor. BTW – your spell check saved me for embarrassment.

  • Dave O’Connor

    “Ecce Homo (Minor)!”

  • Ken Besig, Israel

    Look I am a Viet Nam veteran, a real one, and proud of it. I haven’t met anyone who has falsely claimed to be a Viet Nam vet but even if I had, I cannot imagine that I would care. His false claim in now way diminishes my service or my pride. The guy who falsely claimed he won some medals in no way diminishes the value of the medals, it just makes him look like an idiot. And as far as free speech is concerned what’s the big deal? This guys lies hurt no one but himself, certainly not the real heroes who got the medals legitimately.

    • Dave O’Connor

      Good point, Ken; “This guy’s lies hurt no one but himself,”. Behold the Liar – “Ecce Homo Minor”; but only so far.
      But it makes people leery of “real heroes who got the medals legitimately.”, wondering whether of not they’re meeting closet cavaliers and merely canned-snake-meat eaters or the kid next door who went to serve.
      I guess it’s societal, where knock-off get quality ratings for ‘how close?’.
      This guy was sipping bubbly while a kid you and I have seen grow up is chewing on MRE’s.

  • Bill Hurdle

    Although I in no way condone the behavior of Mr. Alvarez, I don’t think it rises to the criminal level. I believe in most cases it would be evident that a person who claims false valor would be betrayed by their personality. We have much more serious things to occupy our criminal code.

  • ted wight

    AND WHAT ABOUT PRESIDENT OBAMA HE IS LYING TO US ABOUT THE ECONOMY. ABOUT HOW THE FINANCIAL RECESSION STARTED AND ITS CAUSE. ABOUT THE JOBS “HE” SINGLEHANDEDLY CREATED BY SHOWERING HIS CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTORS WITH MONEY. HE IS A LIAR. WHAT CAN WE ORDINARY AMERICANS DO ABOUT IT? NOTHING, NADA, ZERO. HE HAS THE MOST SOPHISTICATED, WELL-FUNDED PROPAGANDA APPARATUS AT HIS BECK AND CALL. WITH DECADES OF BEING TOLD WE CANNOT MAKE DECISIONS ON OUR OWN, WE ARE HELPLESS AGAINST A TYRANT-WANNA-BE. OUR CONSTITUTION AND THE FOUNDERS DID NOT EVERY SUSPECT THAT AN ANTI-BUSINESS, ANTI-CAPITALIST WOULD USE FREEDOM OF SPEECH TO WIN ELECTIONS.

    WE ARE DOOMED AS A POWERFUL, FREE COUNTRY.

  • ted wight

    WE DO NOT HAVE FREE SPEECH. THE CONGRESS AND SUPREME COURT SAID COMPANIES CANNOT MARKET OR ADVERTISE WITHOUT STRICT PERMISSION FROM THE BUREAUCRATS. THAT IS ABOUT “PROTECTING” THE CONSUMER. OBVIOUSLY THE GOVERNMENT — DEMOCRATS PRIMARILY BUT BOTH PARTIES — DON’T BELIEVE THE CONSUMER IS SMART ENOUGH TO READ AND ASSESS TO HIS OWN BEST INTEREST. AND THROUGH OBAMA’S VAST NEW ENCROACHMENT OF FREE SPEECH POOR TONY THE TIGER CAN’T GROWL ANY LONGER. ALL OF IT TELLS US AMERICANS THAT WE ARE NOT SMART ENOUGH TO MAKE IT WITHOUT MUTUAL FUND ADVISORS, LAWYERS, LIFE COACHES, PENSION FUND MANAGERS AND THE FDIC, FTC, HHS, DEATH PANELS, AND SO ON. NO WE NEED GOVERNMENT KEEPING US SAFE. SAFE FROM TENSION, FEAR OF THE FUTURE AND ALL THE REST OF THE HUMAN EMOTIONS THAT ARE US.

  • ted wight

    I AM SURPRISED YOU AREN’T A POLITICIAN.

    • Michael

      I am surprised you haven’t turned off your Caps Lock key. ;)

  • Drew Page

    Bernie, do you think there is one chance in a million that Congress would pass legislation criminalizing making false claims about themselves or their political opponents? If they did, we would have no one in Congress or the Oval Office.

    On another matter, I must tell you that I was very impressed by the commentary you made on the Factor several days ago. You had mentioned how often we are being told by president Obama that we must all get a ‘fair shot’, play by the same rules and pay our ‘fair share’ of taxes. This message is directed at ‘the rich’. The problem I have with this is that the president never defines his terms. One day he speaks of ‘the rich’ as those making a million dollars a year or more. On another day, when submitting his tax plan, ‘the rich’ are identified as individuals making $200,000 a year or more. That’s a 500% difference. The President also continually carps about ‘the rich’ paying their ‘fair share’. I have yet to hear him or any other liberal define what “their fair share” means, in terms of a percentage of income.

    Conspicuous by their absence are the president’s exhortations to the 48% of income earners who pay no federal income taxes and to those who are receiving food stamps, rent subsidies, welfare checks, Medicaid and other free medical care and aid to dependent children. What’s their “fair share” supposed to be? It’s about time somebody said this publicly and I commend you for having the guts to say it.

  • waterlilies84

    I am with you and the professor on this one. Mr. Alvarez didn’t steal a person’s medal, he didn’t claim he received the award that was given to someone who actually performed the deed he claimed. He simply claimed honor for a deed he didn’t do.

    Lying is terrible. What he did is despicable. And he should face public humiliation, but what he did is no different than what advertisers do everyday. Advertisers make promises that simply never materialize as implied. He simply “marketed himself.” Thankfully he got caught.

  • Bill

    Sins of commission and sins of omission are both sins, but are they unconstitutional? Unfortunately the Constitution is the only law that can be violated without penalty, especially by politicians.

  • Steve in Texas

    Agree with you Bernie. I have have tattoos to remind me every day of the people the gave their lives so that people like you can keep people like me informed about j…asses like Mr. Alvarez.

  • Ellen L.

    I find your articles so logical. Why don’t so many other Americans see it as well? My father in law told us he served in Europe during the war. In fact he did serve our nation and may have flown over Europe (but I’m not sure that is true.) He worked on aircraft in Texas. However, he didn’t lie on purpose. I think, knowing his personality, he wanted to believe he went to Europe during the war and he wanted to believe it so much, I think he did believe it. All us relatives knew the real truth, but he wanted to look more important in our eye and this kind of “lie” really didn’t hurt anyone. But when lies come from the white house, it is called politics and makes these kind of lies a reason not to trust our government.

  • Jeannette

    The first thing I thought about, Bernie, as I was reading your article, was that the liar-in-chief has it all over you and Alvarez and any other potential petty liar.

    I’m still waiting for “Hope” to pay off. As in, “I’m waiting for change.” Hell is already forming ice crystals, so maybe there really is hope.

    Actually, if we started rounding up all the liars in government, there would never be enough prisons to hold them all.

  • Rick Johnson

    I couldn’t agree with you and the professor more, Mr. Goldberg. Recently, a local man was found out for pretty much the same thing. He was ostracized in the community. Charging him with a crime was way outside my understanding. Just the fact that he had to look away from true veterans he encountered in his daily life was punishment enough, I suspect.

  • bkbht

    The president lies and no one seems to care. His lies are like the person shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre though, because what he says is believed by people unwilling to take the time to find the truth.

    However, I’ve read that when you lie for the “faith” (Tiggyah) (and that’s not the Christian faith) it’s perfectly alright. I believe he’s lying for the faith…and it’s time someone had guts enough to call him on all of the things he says that aren’t true. These are lies of “fire!” in a crowded theatre and these lies are taking our liberty.

  • RecknHavic

    I enjoyed reading this article whilst tilling around the Caribbean in my 80ft yacht w/ my wife..Morgan Fairchild…yeah, thats the ticket.

  • Wallace Flint

    Bernie,
    To lie about being awarded the Medal of Honor, for example, seems to cheapen it. Those brave men who were really ararded it really put in a giant effort, militaterly, if they were awarded this medal. When enough people lie about it-in my estimation- seems to cheapen it. Being awarded a medal such as this is the highest of honors. Sometimes,as much as I believe in free speech, it, like anything else, is overdone!

    In God We Trust!

    Wally flint-Boonville, NY

    • Rick Johnson

      I respectfully disagree, Mr. Flint. Lying about receiving the medals only cheapens the liar.

  • Steve

    “Congress could enact a law that criminalized false claims by political candidates about their qualifications for office, or false claims about their opponents.” What’s wrong with that? If there’s anything I could easily live with it is politicians being thrown in prison for lying to us. Most of them would already be three-strikes-and-you’re-out offenders, so lock the lying pond scum (new term from Obama’s lips) up for life and use their pensions to pay for their incarceration. These people have no fear of lying to us; that needs to be changed. Unconstitutional, you say? So what, so is ObamaCare and many of the executive orders we’re suffering under right now. Since the Constitution doesn’t matter to these liars any more, I say LOCK THEM UP! ;-)

  • Kent Rini

    Bernie, You give me faith that good will triumph over bad. God bless you. Rev. Kent Rini

  • DOOM161

    Don’t worry. politicians will always make sure that laws against lying don’t apply to them.

  • cmacrider

    Bernie: Great Article. It reminds me of the guy who was driving down a country road in Louisiana and saw a sign on a farmers gate “Talking Dog for Sale.” Intrigued he wheeled in and asked the farmer “You have a talking dog for sale?” “Yup” replied the farmer “if you want to see him go talk to him he is in the back yard.” The traveller rushed into the back yard and spotting the dog said “you can talk?” “Certainly,” said the dog “how are you?” Astonished, the traveller said “You’re an amazing dog, what’s your story?” “Well” the dog replied “I served with the Marines in Iraq and received a Distinguish Service Medal for sniffing out IED’s, then I worked for the CIA and got accommodations for overhearing vital conversations between diplomats, later I worked for the TSA … but now I’m retired.
    Greatly impressed, the traveller rushed to the front of the house and asked the farmer “how much do you want for that amazing dog?” The farmer replied “10 bucks”. “Why such a small price for such an amazing dog?” asked the traveller. The farmer slowly removed his pipe and said “Cause he’s a bull sh***ter … he’s never been out of the back yard.”

    • Vin Bickler

      Cmac, that is priceless. Reading it, made my day. Bernie, you have great followers commenting after every column you write.

  • Howard Redmond

    I would think the Yankees and the Philharmonic would have a case against you Bernie for misrepresenting yourself and tarnishing their image by your misrepresentation. This ruling should be a close one but I understand the slippery slope.

  • Irv Rachstein

    I find it odd that we hold a merchant to a higher standard of truth than we apply to those who run for president of the US. If any of the current crop of candidates were selling cars rather than themselves, we’d jail them for fraud and misrepresentation.

    • Diane

      Co-incidence or distraction? What happened to the woman that Obama fired while she was driving her car? It was all over the news for several days and then it came out there was a video that cleared her. It buried the news about white voters being intimidated at a polling place by some blacks. What happened to them? What happened to her? Was she rehired? Promoted? Got a raise? Obama uses smoke screens a lot if you will notice.
      God bless the USA