Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Does the government have a duty to tell the truth?

Does the government have a duty to tell the truth? Do government reports need to be accurate?

It is hard to say. Members of Congress and Senators have an explicit right to tell lies. Article I, section 6 of the Constitution provides that, "The Senators and Representatives. . .for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." This "speech or debate clause" has been interpreted to insulate Senators and Representatives from suits for falsehoods they may utter in the course of their legislative duties.

Congress passed the Information Quality Act in 2000 (also called the Data Quality Act) to permit persons to petition government agencies to correct misinformation that they disseminate; that is to make government agencies tell the truth. Interpreted the one way, it could be a kind of Wikipedia of government information.

The Courts are now considering whether persons who filed such petitions -- which are then ignored by the agency -- can go to court to get an answer and get the information corrected.

The question is raised by Americans for Safe Access (ASA) which in October 2004 asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to correct their claims that marijuana has no medical value. HHS never substantively replied. In 2007, ASA sued HHS.

This question was argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2009 in San Francisco. The attorney for ASA, Alan Morrison, is one of Washington's most respected appellate advocates. (San Francisco Chronicle report). You can read the brief that was filed here. You can hear the legal argument here.

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