Every four years the First Amendment in its majestic beauty and its shameful ugliness is paraded around for all to see. It is in the form of the political speeches, political rhetoric, the political advertisements, the political pungency and political conversation in the run up to the election for the Presidency of the United States. The right to speak and express oneself does not demand that the speech and expression be truthful, rather speech may be false and may be sanctioned after the fact, but the right to speak is not based upon the truth of the speech.
Over the next two months we will be bombarded with political advertisements, speeches and commentary that on both sides will be taking the truth and stretching it to the point where it often snaps. Some will wonder whose candidates will be able to say what they say without getting in trouble and how certain advertisements will be allowed to be run without running afoul of some governmental agency or another. The answer to that question is simply the First Amendment. It is not up to a government agency or some watchdog to determine what is truthful and what is not truthful so that politicians, the candidates and their handlers are forced to tell the truth. Rather, they may inundate us falsities, half-truths, stretching the facts, in order to distort their opponent’s record and glorify their own.
Some would say that the fact that falsities or distortions are allowed to be aired by politicians and especially those aspiring to the highest office in the land makes a mockery of the First Amendment. They would say that the American people deserve to know the truth and that is the only way we can elect the person who truly represents what we believe in or who we feel will do the best job. They will say that it is impossible for the average person who is bombarded by so much political rhetoric and advertisements to figure out the truth. They will say that things have gotten out of hand and someone must tell them what is correct and what is incorrect.
Yet, the solution is much worse than the problem. Whether the solution is a governmental agency, a bipartisan commission, an independent watchdog agency, or a panel made of commentators and newsmen, any panel has the ability to be partisan, perceived as partisan or be challenged as being partisan. Any panel would be viewing this rhetoric through their perception of what is truth and what is not. Certainly, in the sciences or math there are universal truths. One plus one equals two. Mixing of certain chemicals form other chemicals. But politics is not a science and neither is speech. When a person speaks, many who are listening hear different things.
Even if there was some ability for some panel or commission to determine truth or lack of truth in a statement by a politician or his minions, what would be the standard? Would a statement have to be a hundred percent truthful? Ninety percent? Thirty percent? How would that percentage be rated?
The bottom line is that it is up to us as the American electorate to try our best to know the facts and to try our best to understand who is telling us the truth and who we believe in. It is up to us to decide who we want to vote for based upon what we hear and based upon what we know. It is up to us to know that we are in a better world and in a better country when we are allowed to hear lies, falsities or the stretching of the truth, rather than being in a realm where others censor what we hear and determine for us what is truth.