George Santos: A democracy can't easily penalize lies by politicians
Published in Political News
George Santos is not the first politician to have lied, but the fables he told to get elected to Congress may be in a class by themselves. Historian Sean Wilentz remarked that while embellishments happen, Santos’ lies are different – “there is no example like it” in American history, Wilentz told Vox in a late-January, 2023, story.
Columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that Santos was “a stone cold liar who effectively committed election fraud.”
And now Santos has taken the dramatic step of removing himself temporarily from the committees he’s been assigned to: the House Small Business Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. The Washington Post reports Santos told his GOP colleagues that he would be a “distraction” until cleared in several probes of his lies.
While Santos’ lies got some attention from local media, they did not become widely known until The New York Times published an exposé after his election.
Santos’ lies may have gotten him into hot water with the voters who put him in the House, and a few of his colleagues, including the New York GOP, want him to resign. CBS News reported that federal investigators are looking at Santos’ finances and financial disclosures.
But the bulk of Santos’ misrepresentations may be protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that lies enjoy First Amendment protection – not because of their value, but because the government cannot be trusted with the power to regulate lies.
In other words, lies are protected by the First Amendment to safeguard democracy.
So how can unwitting voters be protected from sending a fraud to Congress?
Any attempt to craft a law aimed at the lies in politics will run into practical enforcement problems. And attempts to regulate such lies could collide with a 2012 Supreme Court case United States v. Alvarez.
Xavier Alvarez was a fabulist and a member of a public water board who lied about having received the Congressional Medal of Honor in a public meeting. He was charged in 2007 with violating the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime to lie about having received a military medal.