Start posting that you own Google; the Rhode Island police can no longer stop you.
If you’ve spent a significant amount of time on the internet, you’ve likely picked up on a few common truths. Specifically, that it’s packed to the brim with porn, adorable cats, and people lying about their actual lives. For citizens of Rhode Island, only two of those things were actually legal to display online, thanks to a 1989 law that made it a crime to transmit “false data” over electronic networks like the internet. State lawmakers have only just overturned the law, which threatened liars of all stripes with fines of up to $500 and even a year of jail time.
The basis behind this change has nothing to do with a belief on the part of lawmakers that lying is totally okay now. Instead, the problem was that the law’s language was so broad that it treated a person who exaggerates their qualities on eHarmony as though they were actually starting a Nigerian Prince email scam. “This law made virtually the entire population of Rhode Island a criminal,” said Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Steven Brown. “When this bill was enacted nobody had any idea what its ramifications were. Telling fibs may be wrong, but it shouldn’t be criminal activity.”
There have been only a handful of actual prosecutions using this law, so the risk of going to jail over a white lie was fairly low. According to George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley, even so-called despicable free speech may have a right to be defended. “It’s part of human nature to embellish and at times lie,” Turley said. “It’s not a redeeming characteristic maybe but it’s a common one. When you give the government the power to criminalize lies, you give it the power to determine what is true and what is false, and which lies to prosecute. That’s a dangerous tool.”
Those concerned that this decriminalization may open the floodgates to outrageous lies on the internet (well, at least more outrageous than before) likely don’t need to worry. Lawmakers are already refining laws that punish those willfully misleading others for harm or profit. The issue is even receiving national attention in light of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it illegal to lie about receiving top military honors. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the act later this week.