Do we have a legal right to lie?
A Californian judge recently ruled drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong had the constitutional right to lie about himself in his books and threw out a lawsuit brought by readers accusing him of fraud.
Angry fans of the disgraced champion cyclist wanted $5 million in refunds for people who had bought Armstrong’s autobiographies in which he falsely stated he never took performance enhancing drugs. They argued it was false advertising as they would never have bought the book had they known he was lying. But the judge ruled Armstrong’s writings were noncommercial free speech, and therefore protected.
In Australia there is no such constitutional protection of free speech, but do we have a legal right to lie? Joshua Dale, human rights expert at Stacks Law Firm, says it all depends where and how you lie.
“Basically, if someone was to rely on your false statement to their detriment it may give rise to criminal prosecution or civil liability,” Dale said.
It’s illegal for company directors to make false statements about their holdings and their company. It’s illegal for people like doctors, lawyers, engineers or builders to make false claims about their qualifications. But it’s not illegal for a baker to claim they are the best in Australia.
It’s illegal to lie on a legal document or in court. Lying when applying for a bank loan could end in the bank voiding the loan. Lying on your CV isn’t a breach of law, but could be grounds for dismissal. Lie about someone on the Internet or in print and you are open to the laws of defamation if it hurts their reputation.
The law stays clear of the rights or wrongs of telling little white lies in relationships. Saying you’re working late when you’re in bed with a lover isn’t legal grounds to call the cops. But Dale points out that lying to someone in a personal relationship might give rise to civil rights of recovery if the lies or false promises are relied on and lead to financial loss or damage.
“The difficulty in these types of matters is not in the operation of the law per se, but the practical aspects of recovery depending on the extent of the lie.”
Similarly, you can be sued over a hoax or prank if it causes damage to a third party. A NSW hoaxer who issued a fake press release about a mining company is facing court after it temporarily wiped $300 million from its value.
If caught in a lie that hurt or a victim thereof, best seek legal advice.