LR30: Lying to Governmental Agencies

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Liberty Revealed Episode 30 Show Summary

Mike talks about a proposal to put all speakers under oath at local city council meetings.

Listen to Liberty Revealed Episode 30

Liberty Revealed Episode 30 Show Notes

Welcome back to another episode of Liberty Revealed, the show dedicated to revealing personal liberty to all who listen. I am your host, Mike Mahony, and today I want to talk to you about lying to a governmental body.

Every state in the United States has laws regarding public meetings. These laws prescribe the procedures for open public meetings. From the notice requirements to what legislators can address during a meeting, these laws aim to provide transparency in government. The concept is most definitely positive. Keeping government transparent is essential to the progress of the liberty movement. 

In July of 1987, the Los Angeles Times published an article that has a very important title — “Brown Act Keeps Sun Shining on Government.”  For those who don’t know, the Brown Act is California’s open meetings law. These laws work best in smaller settings like commissions and school board meetings because there is very little public attendance at these meetings. These open meeting laws force the government to conduct business in the so-called light of day. Is this necessarily a good thing?

Open meeting laws require that, with notable exceptions, most meetings of federal and state government agencies and regulatory bodies be open to the public, along with their decisions and records.

Although open meeting statutes are closely related to the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, no national minimum standard defines “openness,” and it is not mentioned in the First Amendment. Much of the litigation over open meeting laws has centered on whether particular exceptions justify closing certain meetings of government bodies.

These laws ensure the public’s right to access to the internal workings of government at all levels. This “right” cannot be traced back to America’s common law tradition with England or to practices in place when the United States was founded.

Until the mid-1800s, sessions of the English Parliament were closed to the public, and attempts to publish its debates in the press were punishable offenses. In America, sessions of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention were held in secret.

Although neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights requires public access to government meetings, the principle is entirely compatible with the concept of popular sovereignty and an informed citizenry. The freedoms of speech, the press, and the right to petition the government in the First Amendment all presuppose a “right to access.” To criticize or support a government policy effectively, citizens must be informed of the reasons for that policy.

In the 1950s, even before Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act, the American Society of Newspaper Editors had formed the Freedom of Information Committee. It pressured state legislatures to enact “open meetings” laws as part of a general move toward more responsive and responsible government.

By 1976 all of the states and the District of Columbia had passed sunshine laws that created a legal right to (limited) access.

In general, most statutes require public bodies to meet and deliberate in public.

Although these laws guarantee that the public and the media can attend, they do not guarantee the public’s right to speak.

What constitutes a meeting is usually defined by its purpose — to perform public business (social gatherings are not considered meetings) — and the number of participants—a quorum or majority. All such meetings, unless specifically and legally exempted, are presumed to be open to the public, and agencies are required to give advance notice of the date, time, place, and agenda.

Exempted meetings are normally held in closed executive session and may be devoted to such things as personnel issues, ongoing investigations, collective bargaining, conferences with agency attorneys, the acquisition or sale of public property, or a debate among members of the agency prior to a decision.

Nevertheless, the agency must compile minutes or transcripts, and formal action must be taken in a public session. Both federal and state legislatures have the discretion to enact statutes to change or add exemptions at any time.

This brings me full-circle back to the topic of today’s show–lying to a governmental body. It has recently been suggested that local government bodies such as city councils should put people under oath before allowing them to speak in front of that body. The reason for this suggestion is to avoid situations where someone comes before the body to lie to them. Is this a good idea or a bad idea? Let’s think it through, shall we?

Proponents say that lying is fraud. They argue (as do Libertarians) that fraud is a crime society cannot stand for. But are lies always fraud?

The legal definition requires that for a lie to be fraud, it has to be an intentional lie. If you truly believe you are telling the truth, but it is determined you were wrong, that does not qualify as fraud. That doesn\'t excuse willful denial or ignorance of the truth. If you should have known the truth or could easily have discovered it before telling the lie, it could still be a problem.

The second part is about the liar\'s intention. A lie that you don\'t mean anyone to take seriously, such as a joke or hyperbole, wouldn\'t constitute fraud.

When it comes to proving intent for fraud, courts often look at what the liar could gain if someone believes the lie. If the liar benefits from someone believing and acting on the lie, that tends to show intent.

The legal analysis will also rely on context. A lie, while you’re trying to sell your house, is more likely to result in a lawsuit than a lie told over drinks at a bar. Those are obvious examples, but there are many situations in between where the line isn\'t so easy to see.

The third element is whether the lie actually caused harm.

If the listener believed the lie, acted as if it were true, and suffered some kind of injury because of that belief, then there may be some liability for fraud.

Injury can mean actual physical harm or financial loss. In general, emotional \”pain\” isn\'t enough to build a case for fraud.

In general, anything other than a white lie (like how nice your spouse looks) should be avoided. Remember, a lie runs the risk of becoming fraud if you expect the listener to act on the lie. Keeping it honest isn\'t just good personal policy; it\'s a sound legal strategy too.

So why not put people speaking at public comments under oath? You would be able to hold them accountable if they lied under oath. You would be able to take action against those who lie for personal gain. An example of where this would apply happened recently at a Buena Park City Council meeting.

I am part of a group of people who have been trying to recall a corrupt councilmember. We attended a public meeting and were accosted by the husband of one of that councilmember’s staunchest supporters. When I say accosted, I mean we were physically assaulted. The entire incident was captured on video.

A week later that man appeared at City Council and stood up to tell his side of the story. He claimed he was merely protecting his wife. He claimed his wife was being attacked and he simply stepped in as her defender. The problem is the video evidence clearly stated otherwise. It clearly showed he was the aggressor. But what was his purpose in lying at City Council?

We may never know, but several speculated that he was attempting to set up some kind of legal action against our group. At the very least, he was committing libel against us. He knew he was lying and he knew he was attempting to gain personally from those lies. He had committed fraud by the legal definition. Had he spoken under oath, he may have been in some hot water.

While I can see the benefits in a situation like this, I question whether making people speak under oath will accomplish the right goal. I don’t believe most people go to a City Council meeting to intentionally lie. I fear that forcing them to be under oath would discourage people from exercising their First Amendment rights. I am afraid that people would fear prosecution for perjury if they spoke out at a public meeting and what they said turned out to be false. I know many will say they simply have to prove that any untruthful statements were unintentional, but I ask why they should need to prove that in the first place.

In order to come to a conclusion about this issue, I think we need a better understanding of how many people intentionally lie at these meetings. If it is a rampant problem, putting people under oath is something to consider, but if it is a minor, once in a blue moon type of issue, putting people under oath has too many negative connotations for it to be a good thing. 

Tell me your thoughts on this by leaving a voicemail on the Yogi’s Podcast Network hotline at (657) 529-2218.

That’s it for this episode of Liberty Revealed. .If you like what you’ve heard, please rate us 5 stars on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. If you’d like to learn more about personal liberty, grab your free copy of my book “Liberty Revealed” by heading over to Until next time…stay free!

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