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High Value Lies, Ugly Truths, and the First Amendment

67 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2015 Last revised: 10 Feb 2016

Alan K. Chen

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Justin F. Marceau

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: March 25, 2015

Abstract

Lying has a complicated relationship with the First Amendment. It is beyond question that some lies – such as perjury or pretending to be a police officer – are not covered by the First Amendment. But it is equally clear that some lies, even intentionally lying about military honors, are entitled to First Amendment protection. U.S. v. Alvarez, 132 S. Ct. 2537 (2012). To date, however, both Supreme Court doctrine and academic commentary has taken for granted that any constitutional protection for lies is purely prophylactic – it protects the liar to avoid chilling truthful speech. This Article is the first to argue, contrary to conventional wisdom, that certain types of lies paradoxically advance the values underlying the First Amendment. Our framework is descriptively novel and doctrinally important insofar as we provide the first comprehensive post-Alvarez look at the wide range of lies that may raise First Amendment issues. Because there was no majority opinion in Alvarez, there is uncertainty about which standard of constitutional scrutiny should apply to protected lies, an issue we examine at length. Moreover, our normative claim is straightforward: when a lie has intrinsic or instrumental value it should be treated differently from other types of lies and warrant the greatest constitutional protection. Specifically, we argue that investigative deceptions – lies used to secure truthful factual information about matters of public concern – deserve the utmost constitutional protection because they advance the underling purposes of free speech: they enhance political discourse, help reveal the truth, and promote individual autonomy. A prototypical investigative deception is the sort of misrepresentation required in order for an undercover journalist, investigator, or activist to gain access to information or images of great political significance that would not be available if the investigator disclosed her reporting or political objectives. Tactical use of such lies have a long history in American journalism and activism, from Upton Sinclair to his modern day heirs. Using the proliferation of anti-whistleblower statutes like Ag Gag laws as an illustrative example, we argue that investigative deceptions are a category of high value lies that ought to receive rigorous protection under the First Amendment. At the same time, we recognize that not all lies are alike and that in other areas, the government regulation of lies serves legitimate interests. We therefore conclude the Article by drawing some limiting principles to our theory.

Suggested Citation

Chen, Alan K. and Marceau, Justin F., High Value Lies, Ugly Truths, and the First Amendment (March 25, 2015). 69 Vand. L. Rev. 1435 (2015); U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-07. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2585089 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2585089

Alan K. Chen (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States
303-871-6283 (Phone)
303-871-6001 (Fax)

Justin F. Marceau

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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