Right to Lie book cover

“Catherine J. Ross, one of the country’s leading experts on freedom of speech, has written an elegant and provocative book on a topic of great importance: How should lies be treated under the First Amendment? As Ross shows, falsehoods can do enormous harm. But our constitutional jurisprudence has failed to provide a meaningful approach, especially when the lies come from a president or are viral over social media. In this clearly written, engaging book, Ross provides a path forward.”

—Erwin Chemerinsky
University of California, Berkeley School of Law

A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment

The cascade of Trump’s lies as president confronts us with a question vital to the future of American democracy:  do presidents and others in public life have a right to lie?  Specifically, does the First Amendment protect verifiable falsehoods?

Drawing from court cases about defamers, proponents of birtherism, braggarts, and dissembling politicians, leading First Amendment expert and professor at the George Washington University Law School Catherine J. Ross addresses these questions in her forthcoming book, A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment. The general answer, as Ross shows, is “yes.”

Ross reveals the seemingly insurmountable constitutional and practical obstacles to legal efforts to rein in public deception.  She explains the legal treatment of lies, and the rationales for protecting most falsehoods. At the same time, she documents the incalculable damage presidential mendacity may cause, exemplified by Trump’s lies about the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.  Crucially, Ross proposes a novel, constitutionally viable solution under which the executive’s material lies to the public on substantial matters would be deemed a “high crime and misdemeanor” subject to penalties ranging from censure to impeachment.

This book is essential reading for anyone grappling with the impact of falsehoods on our nation’s governance. Even after Trump’s term in office ended, the threat posed by rampant falsehoods in the public arena remains unabated.  A Right to Lie? provides much-needed legal, historical, and contemporary context, including discussion of the January 6 insurrection, Trump’s second impeachment, and the immediate aftermath to those events.

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