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In the society I am building it is illegal for a government official to lie (this isn't a reaction to real world politics; I've been building this world for a while), while speaking/acting as representatives of the government/state. In other words, all government employees are constantly under oath while "on the job". This doesn't affect them in their personal lives.

Now the problem I'm having is with wording this law. I don't want to include joking/sarcasm as prosecutable offenses.

Now obviously a politician may claim that a false statement was a joke all along to try and circumvent this law. The decision of whether or not claims like this are reasonable/legitimate will be a case by case matter and left to the discretion of judges. So there's no need to make the wording of the law ridiculously verbose and precise. To quote United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart "I'll know it when I see it".

Yet still I can't quite seem to find even a semi-loose way of wording the intent of this law. For instance:

It will be a crime for civil servants to misrepresent or present false information with the deliberate intention of deceiving fellow government officials or members of the public while acting out their functions as government representatives. Such actions (whether taking the form of verbal, written or other types of communications) will constitute the grounds for treason and be subject to the full penalty of the law. But jokes are fine. Also sarcasm is okay.

I'm not being quite serious, sure, but I think that gets my point across, how do I define a joke in a legal context? What is a joke? Perhaps you're think "deliberate intention of deceiving" excludes jokes, but does it really? Isn't deliberate (temporary) deception part of the structure of many jokes? In many cases the "truth" (that is, the fact that the whole thing was a joke) is only revealed in the punchline, right? Even if the punchline is delivered seconds after the "lie", a "lie" was still told.

So how can I word this law in such a way as its intent is made clear?

There are other exceptions too of course, for example for sensitive classified information and government agents taking part in covert international operations but those are questions for another day.

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    $\begingroup$ I wish I had an answer but this is a great question that delves into very deep problems we have even now. $\endgroup$ – Trevor Feb 14 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ jokes and sarvcasm aside - already metaphors and figurative speech might be hazardous $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Feb 14 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ How to make joking not an offense? - Everyone tells jokes while holding up two fingers together; reverse boy scout. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 14 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Frame check point: Only the Truth is Funny (YouTube) $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Feb 15 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ I've always felt that there is no difference between a "Joke" that you don't explain immediately and a lie, it IS a lie and just saying later that you were joking doesn't fix anything that transpired due to your lie. $\endgroup$ – Bill K Feb 15 at 20:20

21 Answers 21

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It will be a crime for civil servants to misrepresent or present false information with the deliberate intention of deceiving fellow government officials or members of the public while acting out their functions as government representatives.

This works just fine. Jokes and sarcasm are temporary. The government worker moves on and then tells the truth.

If there is someone who still thinks it's real, the worker did not intentionally deceive anyone. There are plenty of laws where the intent matters. It's already part of our legal system. Either in differentiating a greater crime from a lessor crime or in differentiating a crime from a legal act.

Given the consequences of a misinterpreted joke though, I'd think government workers would be extra cautious and always say "just kidding!" after a joke, or not tell them in the first place.

It's also already illegal in many places for a member of the public to lie to various government officials. For example, it's against the law (as in an actual crime, not just a financial penalty) to lie on your tax returns or in an IRS audit (United States federal tax organization). If you go into an audit and say, "I don't have to report the basement full of gold bars, right?" they will not be amused, but it won't get you sent to prison.

Your suggested language is fine. Just leave out the "but jokes are fine. Also sarcasm is okay" part as it's not necessary and puts too much emphasis on it. We already have laws that cover this, you're just widening the scope.

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    $\begingroup$ This. Instead of forbidding false statements, forbid intentionally deceiving people. This way you also forbid e.g. misleading people by telling them only part of the truth but allow false statements like "your pants are on fire" which is false (because there are no pants burning) but it's just an idiom so it doesn't mislead anyone. $\endgroup$ – user31389 Feb 14 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ In the US there are laws that rely on whether a "reasonable person" would have thought something. The jurisprudence on the standard boils down to "No one knows exactly what who the reasonable person is or how he thinks, but the standard still produces just outcomes most of the time." $\endgroup$ – IllusiveBrian Feb 14 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @HopelessN00b Yep. And it's paired with it being legal for police to lie to suspects, arrestees, etc. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 16 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyn And more than just legal for them to lie to you, but standard operating procedure. I am not a lawyer or law enforcement professional, but from my conversations with those who are, I've been told in that lawyer-y way that basically, yeah, they almost certainly WILL lie to you, and it's vanishingly rare that they wouldn't. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Feb 16 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @IllusiveBrian It should be noted though that the "reasonable person" concerned in US law allows such conspiracy theorists as Alex Jones to hawk conspiracy theories and yet be relatively immune to defamation suits because "no reasonable person would believe him", though clearly there's plenty of people, reasonable or otherwise, who do. $\endgroup$ – Gramatik Feb 18 at 15:40
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In Australia, like in many other countries, it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual preference, or any other attribute not directly related to the decision at hand.

People still do of course, partly because the problem is in proving that a particular person's attributes NOT related to their capacity to do the work is very hard to do, especially when much of what makes them suitable to the work environment is subjective; is this person a good 'fit' for the workplace and the other people in the team?

So, in the first instance, given there is a presumption of innocence in most countries (and I'm assuming yours), there's an argument that Sarcasm and jokes are a part of the language, and that it is understood that a sarcastic remark really means the opposite, and therefore no lie has taken place - if anything, treating a sarcastic remark as a falsehood is really a failure of interpretation.

In other words, your law doesn't have a problem with over-enforcement; it's going to have a problem with under-enforcement.

That said, if you do decide to tighten up the law so that sarcastic remarks are included by default and the onus is on the person articulating it, then exceptions can be written into law quite easily, and Australian anti-discrimination law actually does that.

For instance, anti-discrimination legislation in Australia explicitly forbids prosecution of people who choose actors for specific roles based on race, gender, etc. In other words, if you pick a white male to play a role of a white male, you're protected by the legislation to do so.

So to it may be that you have to declare intent to be sarcastic before actually doing it, which would kind of damage the joke or the sarcasm a bit, but you could make provision for such humour in that manner.

Of course, then you've opened up Pandora's Box, so to speak, because of the ability to actually hide the truth - let's say your politician speaks an absolute truth, but does so in a sarcastic tone.

Is your politician innocent because they spoke the truth, or guilty because they did so in a potentially misleading way?

Ironically, most politicians are already under a form of oath in their parliaments insofar as they are prohibited from misleading the parliament in any way. In my experience, attempts to prosecute on those grounds really come down to what the politician knew at the time, and they all claim they were given incorrect information at the time and didn't have reasonable access to the truth at the time of the utterance.

Which brings me to my final point - there is a MASSIVE difference between truth and fact. How do you determine that someone isn't sincere in what they say, believing it to be 'true', even if it's obviously and blatantly wrong?

In democracies, we don't elect our politicians for their capability in leadership, more's the pity. We elect them to represent the views that best fit our own. As such, trying to enforce 'truth' is a slippery slope towards a dystopian future full of thought police.

Better to let them share their opinions to the fullest, and fact check them later in my personal view.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting answer especially about that last part about dystopias, because, well the country I'm building is a "fascist-lite" technocracy. As for the problem of sarcasm and whether or not the accused expressed well enough that their statement was in fact ironic, well that falls under the legal idea of a "reasonable person". Assuming a "reasonable person" would understand the statement to be sarcastic then they would have committed no crime. And as I said, deciding whether or not the former is the case would fall under the jurisdiction of a judge. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Feb 13 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ "a slippery slope towards a dystopian future full of thought police" if you live in England (couldn't vouch for other parts of the UK) right now you might feel we were almost there already, just a nudge further to go. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 14 at 0:26
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Trying to actually make a system that does what you wish is enormously difficult. Defining "lying" to mean exactly what you want it to mean and not anything else is virtually impossible because what makes a lie is not actually part of the statement. The lie appears as part of the interpretation on the part of the listener.

For example, consider "The sky isn't blue," uttered by an official on a clear day without a cloud in the sky. Their statement is not a lie. the atmosphere between 1 foot above their head and 100km above the head is predominantly clear gasses. The blueness is actually a structural effect caused by interactions between the sunlight and the eyeballs. Sound absurd? Actually, biologists who study butterflies make a very strong line between structural blue and blue pigments which is right along these lines. It turns out nature doesn't have very many ways to make blue pigments, but it's found a lot of ways to generate blue structural light, like that of most blue butterfly wings.

Trying to make it always apply to an individual is even harder. Doing that 100% of the time is just plain difficult.

A solution from fiction can be found in Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land. In this book, we are introduced to Anne a certified Fair Witness. Fair Witnesses are indeed what you are looking for: someone who does not lie, not in the least. In his story, when a Fair Witness is operating in official capacity, they wear a cloak that signifies their state. The sort of effects you are looking for can be seen in this interaction involving Anne as an off-duty Fair Witness. Even off-duty, her instincts show the sort of thinking that's involved with being a Fair Witness:

[Jubal Talking to Jill] "You know how Fair Witnesses behave."
"Well... no, I don't. I've never met one."
"So? Anne!"
Anne was on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out "That house on the hilltop -- can you see what color they've painted it?"
Anne looked, then answered, "It's white on this side."
Jubal went on to Jill, "You see? It doesn't even occure to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King's horses couldn't force her to commit herself... unless she went there and looked -- and even then she wouldn't assume that it stayed white after she left."
"Anne is a Fair Witness?"
"Graduate, unlimited license, admitted to testify before the High Court. Sometime ask her why she gave up public practice. But don't plan anything else that day -- the wench will recite the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which takes time...."

Anything less than this level of extremeness will always run afoul of your ideal somewhere. No surprise that Heinlein lets them go off duty by not wearing their cloak!

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  • $\begingroup$ Right, but clearly the point is about intention. In your example "The sky isn't blue", there is little to no means by which to assess what was the intention of the person making the statement. So nobody would bother bringing this person to court as they'd never be able to prove their guilt. Also that lie is pretty trivial. Consider on the other hand the great multitude of lies uttered by politicians across time and across the globe where irrefutable (by any reasonable person) proof that they were indeed lying was then discovered? It's those sorts of lies that my law seeks to dissuade. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Feb 14 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to use "By any reasonable person," then the process is easy. Make the law: "It is illegal for an official to lie. A lie is defined to be that which any 12 reasonable jurors declare to be a lie." The legaleese only becomes important when you aren't relying on reasonable people. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 14 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ Intent is an enormously challenging concept in the legal system, because one and only one person knows the intent of a statement. We rely on a tremendously vast system to permit 12 jurors to declare the intent of another individual in situations like 1st degree murder trials. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 14 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AnglePray Also perhaps interesting is something that a retired FBI director once said: "Once you reach a certain level of seniority, you are not responsible for what you say. You are responsible for what people hear." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 14 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ Another fun example from fiction: I've been watching the Lucifer series on Netflix. In it, Lucifer readily admits that he is The Devil, with capital letters. However, nobody actually believes him. They think he's just joking. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 14 at 6:14
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You can try taking a page from chess. Chess has a "Touch-move rule" which requires a player to move a piece which they touch. However, they acknowledge that sometimes you need to move a piece slightly without it counting as your move. When a player (in tournament/professional play) wishes to do so, they say J'adoube (literally "I adjust" in French) before touching the piece. This informs the other player (and any observers or judges) that this touch is not intended to be their move.

In your world, the equivalent would be to require that before saying anything which can be misconstrued, the politician must indicate that it is not intended as fact. Since you're looking to write it into a law, it should probably be a specific word or phrase, rather than leave it up to the politician.

As an example:

It will be a crime for civil servants to misrepresent or present false information with the deliberate intention of deceiving fellow government officials or members of the public while acting out their functions as government representatives. Such actions (whether taking the form of verbal, written or other types of communications) will constitute the grounds for treason and be subject to the full penalty of the law. Any statement which is prepended with "In other news" shall not be considered an official statement for any purpose, including penalties under this law.

With a law like this, politicians will practice saying "In other news" (or choose a more appropriate phrase or create your own word) before telling jokes, the same way they currently practice any other aspect of public speaking.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is what I was thinking. It needs to be unambiguous that the statement is not intended to be seen as fact. It should also be the case that anyone repeating or presenting a record of the communication also include a statement that the speaker signaled that the statement(s) are not factual. That prevents collaborative lying. $\endgroup$ – C Teegarden Feb 14 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ "In my opinion"? "Don't quote me"? "Off the record"? $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 16 at 4:23
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Your world is our world. In the United States, 18 USC 1001 says:

Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—

(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;

(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or

(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;

shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.

The key in the above that covers what you are asking about is the words "materially false". That is, it must be false in a way that really matters.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. That would suggest that the problem for the most part isn't the laws, it's the fact that they never get enforced. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 14 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I guess it comes down to whether you would rather have political truth determined by courts or voters. $\endgroup$ – David Schwartz Feb 14 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ 'Except as otherwise provided in this section,...' Ah, and therein is the rub. The exceptions. That is the wording that is at issue. How do you describe a 'joke' as an exception. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Feb 14 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @David Schwartz Really, that is what it all comes down to, frankly. The 'quality' of the voters, and their desire for honesty. How much does the voter hold 'honesty' in high regard? If the voter does not care about honesty, then no law will ensure it. If the voter demands, and fact-checks, for honesty, then no law is required - only a provision for the recall of the political operative at the demand of the voter. But you cannot legislate against stupidity. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Feb 14 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme The joke exception comes from the materiality requirement in each section. A joke is not "materially false" nor does it cover up or deceive about a "material fact". $\endgroup$ – David Schwartz Feb 14 at 21:38
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I think the law permits you to retract false testimony while under oath. Therefore:

The speaker of a deliberate untruth may, within a reasonable time and to a significant audience, retract, correct, or modify the untruth, thereby negating the penalties thereof.

"Reasonable time" and "Significant audience" are deliberately vague, because they have to be. If a DMV worker is serving someone at his counter and says "There's a manager in our office who plans to get promoted even if he needs to stab his boss," he has to say "Just kidding" so that anyone who heard him the first time can hear it.

But if he said it in a live tv interview, then he needs to say "That's a joke, obviously!" before the camera stops running. If he's not fast enough, he has to issue a public retraction as soon as possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think "reasonable time" and "significant audience" is far too vague. A good lawyer could twist this in a way that a retraction which happens days later to a much smaller audience is enough to escape punishment. A better phrasing would ensure that the correction is addressed at the same audience and during the same event. Another possible phrasing could be "before any receivers of the untruth have the opportunity to act upon the false information" $\endgroup$ – Philipp Feb 15 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp, Yes they are vague, but as I understand it, many laws are written using terms such as "reasonable" (such as "beyond a reasonable doubt") for reasons that I assume are valid. In my example I show what happens if it's not possible to address the same audience at the same event. $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 16 at 4:18
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Have you considered the possibility of the mechanics of the society's language(s) itself being a response to your legal constraints? Consider, perhaps, a new, more distinct set of grammatical and phonetic constructions (possibly aspects of body language, too) to make the intention of lying as a joke more apparent. There are various (albeit not particularly formal) real-world analogues to this: "/s" in online forums is sometimes denoted at the end of a post to denote sarcasm - not to mention, sarcasm, in verbal speech, often is denoted by a specific "sarcastic mode" of one's voice.

In your society, given such a strict law, I'd imagine these types of changes would require languages to be treated in a more prescriptive manner than a descriptive one. Maybe your society would have institutions like the Académie française, perhaps set up more as government ministries than independent bodies.

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Conditional statements

If the premise is not true, then what follows is not true either; however, the statement as a whole can be true.

All jokes can be framed as conditional statements, and hence be perfectly in line with the law you describe.

For instance:

If a horse could walk into a bar, the bartender may greet it with 'why the long face?'

of

If your mama had been fat enough, she would have used the equator as a belt.

Note that this apply also to government statements where secrecy of certain information if crucial

If there are weapons of mass destruction in the enemy country, then it would be right to invade them. Are there such weapons? If we had full knowledge of the situation, we may conclude that there are.

[Note that they would not commit to having full knowledge of the situation]

Or, in the case of the blueness of the sky, mentioned in another answer

If the sky had to be given a color, we may agree on blue.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that while "If we had full knowledge of the situation, we would conclude that there are." does not assert having full knowledge, it does assert the partial knowledge related to the existence of weapons (because full knowledge is a superset of knowledge of weapons). Does usage of the word "may" instead of "would" completely remove the logical meaning of the statement? $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Feb 16 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ Your first statement does not seem correct. Can you prove its validity in terms of logic operations? $\endgroup$ – NofP Feb 17 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ Do you agree that statement is equivalent to "All persons who have full knowledge of the situation conclude there are"? $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Feb 17 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely not. The initial statement is about the possibility to come to a conclusion rather than the actual content of such conclusion. $\endgroup$ – NofP Feb 17 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ @benvoigt be careful. In that world you've already gone <zap> :-D $\endgroup$ – NofP Feb 17 at 7:26
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For a real world example, you might be interested in looking into "puffery" and how the United States's FTC (Federal Trade Commission) handles it in relation to false advertising. (Statements like "World's best coffee!" are puffery.)

The idea is that everyone knows it's a lie, no reasonable person would believe it. False advertising is still illegal though; it must be shown that a company intentionally tried to mislead people. Puffery is usually considered an opinion rather than a fact. Because of that it's not considered "false" since it's an opinion. In addition, since most people understand puffery's usage (even if they've never heard the term or had to define it) it's difficult to say that a company is trying to "intentionally mislead" people when doing it.

Your law actually already has similar wording.

It will be a crime for civil servants to misrepresent or present false information with the deliberate intention of deceiving fellow government officials or members of the public while acting out their functions as government representatives. [...]

If someone is joking, people will know. Unless part of your setting is that everyone is hyper literal or something like that I would think this wouldn't be an issue.

If they weren't joking and claimed they were, then maybe they fool some people with the original lie but surely someone would know (like a political opponent) and call them out. Then everyone would stop believing the lie once the liar has to "admit" it was a joke (or they could be punished, their choice).

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Methinks you are using a hammer to cut a piece of glass in two. Certainly, after using a hammer, the glass WILL be in at least two pieces, but perhaps not in the shape you originally intended. That is, the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Law of Indiscriminate Application of Force (non-controlled application of forces results in non-controlled consequences).

I suggest that, rather than a law, you should make it compulsory for all politicians or candidates for a public office be required to take an oath, much like one does in a court of law, to always tell the truth in any communication made in association with that office or campaign for that office. Thus, if they did purposefully tell a lie, the offense would not be in telling the lie, but in breaking their oath. Breaking their oath would be grounds for their immediate removal from office, at a minimum. As part of this oath, they would commit to always support any communication they made with well documented references to support their communication, much like companies are required to back up any claims they make in an advertisement with proof. Failure to make public this evidence would mean either a public retraction or removal from office.

The difference between breaking an oath, and breaking the law, is in who enforces the infraction? If one is accused of breaking a law, it means charges are laid, it goes before a judge, and you have the entire legal hassle of 'political immunity from prosecution', legal appeals, legal procedures, and the adversarial process of courts.

If, on the other hand, it is an oath, then an entirely different process would be followed. It is no longer a criminal offence. It would come before a tribunal (an impartial, non-partisan jury of peers, perhaps) that would hear the accusation, hear the evidence, determine the truthfulness of the statement, and make a binding decision as to weather it violated the oath or not. Sort of like the advertising council tribunals. The procedures would not be the same as used in a court of law. It would not necessarily be prosecution-defense-rebuttal-rebuttal, discovery, and the prosecution laying the case out at the beginning. More along the lines of an inquiry, where dispositions are heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.

Another difference is that being accused of breaking the law means everything has to be spelled out, clear-cut, unambiguous, and specific. Breaking an oath, on the other hand, is more along the lines of a civil, instead of a criminal, case. 'Reasonable probability' is substituted for 'beyond all reasonable doubt'.

In such a scenario, it would be up to the tribunal to decide if the communication were made as something that the public would take as a statement of fact and rely upon in making decisions. Very similar to how advertising councils and newspaper tribunals make decisions. And just as in such existing tribunals, allowances would be made for subjective 'fluff' through common law and precedent. Only claims that could be factually analysed and objectively verified would be subject to the oath. 'Largest carrier by installed base' is an advertising claim that can be supported or refuted. 'The greatest thing since sliced bread' is entirely subjective, and therefore can not be supported or refuted.

Since advertising tribunals do work to cut down on deceptive advertising, there is clear evidence that such a system could work, as long as the tribunal had teeth (removal from office and sanctions against participating in campaigning again).

As much as you wish to stay away from the current political situation in America, I posit that it does provide substantial test situations in which to evaluate the effectiveness of whatever method you use, and whatever wording you use. Pick any or several of the hundreds of examples of situations in recent American politics that you wish to address, apply your solution to the scenario, and see if it results in the intended consequences.

Could a politician wiggle out as easily as they can currently from the consequences of statements they have made? Does it cast too wide a net, and implicate politicians in situations you feel they should not be admonished for?

EDIT

For an example of what an oath would look like, consider the Canadian Code of Advertising

As its name implies, the Code has as its primary purpose the expression of Canadian standards in advertising that, when followed, should result in responsible yet effective advertising without unreasonably blunting the underlying fundamental right to advertise lawfully-sold products and services in a fair but competitive manner.

The oath would state 'I will not violate the 'Political Code for Truthfulness', and the code would spell out the criteria and determinants for what is a false or true statement, much like the Canadian Code for Advertising. This Code would be flexible and interpretable, a guideline for the tribunal to use, just as the Canadian Code to Advertising is intentionally somewhat malleable.

As an adjunct, the Advertising Code contains a provision for determining the legitimacy of a complaint

If, upon review, it appears to ASC or Council that a complaint is not a disguised trade complaint or special interest group complaint, and that based on the provisions of the Code reasonable grounds for the complaint appear to exist, then the consumer complaint will be accepted for processing. If at any time thereafter during the complaint review process, but prior to the release of Council’s decision on the complaint, either ASC or Council concludes that, in reality, the complaint is a trade complaint or a special interest group complaint, but not a consumer complaint, the process will be discontinued and the complainant notified accordingly. In these cases, the complainant will be reminded that alternative approaches should be considered by the complainant for registering an advertising-related complaint, such as under ASC’s Advertising Dispute Procedure or Special Interest Group Complaint Procedure.

But trying to spell out the Code in a simple 'Law' format is nigh on impossible. There are so many intricacies, that it would be impossible to state clearly and unambiguously.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sure, but you're just pushing the problem back a step. What formulation for the oath would make it clear the official was promising to tell the truth but not promising to not joke? $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Feb 14 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the distinction you make between the adversarial process of the courts and the inquiry process only makes sense in certain legal systems, predominantly the common law ones. It's a reasonable assumption that OP is thinking in those terms (since they quote a US Supreme Court judge), but IMO it's worth making the point that systems based on the Napoleonic Code have an inquiry ethos in criminal trials. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Feb 14 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Taylor You raise a very good point. A lot depends on the type of legal system you have. Japan has a very different system, more like an 'inquiry process', and the Confucian system in use by China has a different methodology as well. Indigenous legal systems are quite different again. Some systems are based on 'honor', others are based on 'legalities'. Some on the 'spirit of the law', others on the 'technicality' of the law. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Feb 14 at 15:34
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In order to bring someone to justice one must simply prove damages, and then the person is tried for those damages, not the lie.

So when Bush says "No new taxes" you could now hold him liable for every dollar any taxpayer had to pay for a new tax.

If a politician says something about chickens crossing roads, it would be very difficult to prove damages.

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You have some great answers here but I believe I have an answer from a different perspective: to have your politicians define the ulterior message if they are suspected or proved to have lied.

I'm drawing on transactional analysis for this and defining an ulterior transaction as "a transaction in which an overt message and a covert message are conveyed at the same time" - Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, TA Today, p. 384.

We use covert messages all the time, and they can either contradict or be completely unrelated to the overt message. Transaction analysis therapists are interested in these as they are the stuff of what a relationship is really about. In most settings, the covert message often goes unacknowledged, but what if your politicians had to be able to explain what was meant by a given statement including the covert message? It might look something like this:

Conversation example from Avatar.

Jake Sully: How do I know if it chooses me? [Overt: How will I know if this dragon-thing has chosen to bond with me? Covert: I feel unprepared for the encounter I a about to have with this dragon-thing. Please provide me with information about how I can tell when I am out of danger.] Neytiri: It will try to kill you. [Overt: If it chooses to bond with you it will try to kill you. Covert: Here is the direct answer to your question.] Jake Sully: Outstanding. [Overt: That answers my direct question perfectly. Covert: I'm angry because I have found myself in a situation that is far more dangerous than I initially anticipated. I am angry both at you for not presenting this information to me before this moment (although I don't like to be angry at you because you are my guide), and at myself for not asking for more probing questions about this situation before now.]

Being able to reproduce a conversation like this verbatim, along with capturing any ulterior meaning (such as tone, body language, or gesticulations) would raise their own problems, but I thought I'd present this to you given that your politicians are, after all, in the public eye and much of what they say is recorded and/or filmed.

Further information may arise if and when disputes arise over the covert meaning, and I might suggest that those answers be put to a committee. It's not a perfect solution to your problem by any means, but it would bring the covert into clearer focus, which may help.

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The "intent to deceive" many exist in the beginning of many jokes but by the end of the conversation you always expect the other person to know it was a joke. It may kill the class of jokes where you deceive someone to see if they will make a fool of themselves with the wrong information but I would not be sad to see that class of jokes disappear.

In Japan there was an Emperor who outlawed lying. He is long gone but the Japanese people still, hundreds of years later, add Kedo (however) to the end of many statements. They are making the statement but acknowledging that it may not be completely accurate to make that statement so they cannot be held accountable if it is not correct. Interesting side social impact.

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You need to focus more on the intended consequences of the lie, not just the intent to deceive. Forget jokes, do you want to make it a criminal offense for someone to reply to "hey, how's it going?" with "fine" if they happen to actually be having a bad day or menstrual cramps or dealing with the slow death of a loved one? What about "thank you for coming" when they really aren't feeling all that grateful?

But wait! you say, I don't want my politicians and civil servants hiding important information from other government officials or the electorate. I might not have voted for that loser if I'd realized they didn't really like me coming to visit! Well, that's where the intended outcome matters. Try something like

It will be a crime for civil servants, while acting out their functions as government representatives, to intentionally misrepresent or present false information for the purpose of causing fellow government officials or members of the public to make civic decisions or take civic actions based on the misleading or false information. Such misrepresentations (whether taking the form of verbal, written or other types of communications) will constitute the grounds for treason and be subject to the full penalty of the law.

You can define "civic" (or whatever phrase strikes your fancy) decisions/actions as behavior that affects the functioning or well-being of the polity. So misrepresenting the state of your health to the electorate would be a crime if done for the purpose of getting votes, but misrepresenting the state of your health to your co-worker so they wouldn't give you yet another lecture on the value of echinacea powder would be OK.

Something like a knock-knock joke would also be OK, even if done to make the audience like you better and therefore vote for you, because the change in behavior doesn't turn on the truth of the information (it's not a question of whether it's really Lettuce at the door or not, so much as how you tell the joke).

On the other hand, a "joke" that is full of misleading and uncorrected innuendo about a political opponent, promulgated specifically to turn voters against that opponent, could potentially be prosecuted under such a law, if it could be proven that the voters based their decisions on believing the false innuendo.

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Inspired by @Bobson's answer, I would flip it around, to have a law somethig like this:

1) Any officer of the Government that provides factual information or responses to any person, in the course of their duties, shall be required to state on each occasion:

a) that the said information may be relied upon;

or, if the reliability of the said information is, or may be, significantly uncertain:

b) Their honest belief and knowledge as to the extent to which it is or is not to be relied upon.

2) Failure to explicitly make such statement when communicating factual matters in the course of their duties, other than in the circumstances stated in paragraph 3, shall be a criminal offence.

3) A statement referred to in paragraph 2 shall not be required in communications that are reasonably understood to be of a minor or transitory nature, unless any party to whom the information is communicated (directly or indirectly) requires the same to be made clear.

4) A statement required under paragraphs 1 or 3, may be reasonably deferred, but for a reasonable period only, and of the shortest practical duration, and for not more than 4 working days without judicial consent. The circumstances under which deferral is permitted shall be: to allow confirmation and ensure accuracy.

That neatly solves it. You effectively impose a duty to state if something is "on the record" (can be relied on), and a right for a third party to require that status to be clarified. You also provide a way to handle uncertainty, or if a member of the public just wants to know where the stairs are, or if the canteen food is good today, or what you got up to on your day off at home (that's a "statement of fact" too).

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I don't want to include joking/sarcasm as prosecutable offenses.

That would be simple in the laws, the nuance will be in the enforcement (and avoidance of accidental enforcement). We have similar laws but don't really enforce them, otherwise someone would have been punished for a certain bus sign in the UK!

If the law is enforced rigidly and the punishments more than superficial then people would be far more careful about jokes. Perhaps they would develop a very obvious "this is a joke" signal in all modes of communication, like the smilies/emoticons we use here & now in writing, and the changes in tone & "air quotes" often associated with spoken sarcasm, and be very careful to always give off those signals when joking.

Of course that can and will lead to a reverse of the problem: was that joke, with all the right this-is-a-joke signals, really a joke or intended to be seen as a statement? People will always try to find a way around rigid laws and strict enforcement. Other problems enforcement of such laws could introduce include exacerbating the problem of (accidentally or otherwise) misrepresenting what someone else said or wrote, simple misunderstandings (was a signal given but missed?) and so on. And in the case of written works, how do you assign blame amongst a group of writers, an editor, a publisher, and everyone else involved?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! This has ended up in the "low quality" queue, and while I personally think it's a good answer, you may wish to include a one-line summary of what your exact answer to the question is. My understanding is that you're saying "you can't, because how do you define a joke?", but you could make that a little bit clearer. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Feb 14 at 12:48
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The inhabitants of your world speak Lojban

Lojban, the constructed language designed to be unambiguous, requires that jokes be grammatically marked as such. Now, your officials can tell as many jokes as they want, confident that no fluent Lojban speaker will misinterpret their jokes as statements of fact. You could even have some fun and have a less-than-fluent law enforcement officer or prosecutor go after one of your officials for "lying", and then give the audience a grammar lesson in court as the defense calls the Lojban Grammar Advisory Board to explain grammatical lying versus grammatical joking.

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    $\begingroup$ Lojban is syntactically unambiguous, not semantically unambiguous. Can you provide a link to the "required joke marking" you reference? I've searched and can't find anything about it, and the xkcd link seems superfluous. Further, I don't see any way to keep sarcasm out of this. $\endgroup$ – Geobits Feb 15 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ From what I understand, Lobjan uses punctuation and other written markers to denote jokes and sarcasm, how would this help a politician who is speaking $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Feb 16 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Aethenosity This seems to suggest there are also verbal markers. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Feb 17 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ @PyRulez good find, I agree that it seems to suggest that. Thanks $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Feb 17 at 5:51
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There are many forms of comedy and ways to get a laugh which require no “lying” whatsoever.


Jokes which “require” lying are interesting because they are never really lies.

Lying is the act of concealing the truth from the unknowing.

However, if two people mutually understand the same truth, and are also mutually aware of each other’s knowledge, joking with “lies” is quite possible.

For example:

“Oh, look,” says Terry to Kris.

“The sky is red,” Terry says with a wink.

Kris laughs.

In the event there is some confusion, preface.

“Here’s a joke,” Noor says to Sam.

“I would totally date Pam,” Noor says with a smile.

Sam laughs.


And then, of course, is slapstick comedy. Watching someone’s reaction as they are hit in the face by an unexpected pie is almost ageless, and still funny after thousands of years of basically the same “joke.”


And there is the comedy of misinterpretation, as Abbot and Costello so masterly demonstrated with “Who’s on first?”


And the comedy of the unexpected which Tape Face uses.


As an aside, it’s perhaps worth noting that in a society where jokes are illegal because “jokes are lies” it would also be illegal to have fantasy, SciFi, soap operas, theatre (as we understand it), advertising, make up, wigs, and overly flattering profile pictures.

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Easy. All govt employees have to present truth in writing, with proper stamps, signatures (and counter signatures of incharges). Ordinary citizens that receives the information have to sign receiving on copy of the documents and the govt employees keep those signed copies for their record.

A govt employee can say whatever he wants (including jokes, metaphors, idioms, poetry and sarcasms) but unless its brought in writing its understood that he is not standing behind his words in official matters so the stuff cannot be used in official matters (like in western countries evidences gathered without warrant are null and void in court).

If its found; by absence of signed-by-public copy of documents, that a govt employee didnt present required information to public; or that a govt employee presented non factual stuff, like jokes or metaphors or sarcasms to public, by presence of such non factual signed (and countersigned by incharge) documents in custody of an ordinary citizen; then that employee is severly punished by freeze on promotion or transfer to severe climate location depending (on discretion of special marshals handpicked by dictator himself or a governor) the perceived criticality in the matter of the absent information, and non factualness of present information.

On second count of same offense a criminal proceeding will be held either by a governor or by dictator himself and punishments will include imprisonment for life (alongwith ofcourse seizure of all property to fund the living expenses and to cover losses to society) or death penalty.

Its important to give your employees a second chance by letting them work on same designation even if transferred to a far off place in empire. If after a minimum of 3 years the employee proved himself worthy of reinstating at former position, through extra ordinary dedication to service, do reinstate him back to his former position but not compensate for lost years in promotion hierarchy. Dont put any upper limit on how long to wait for employee to show extra ordinary performance (till retirement).

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Require 50% of their statements to be false, but have them document which ones

The solution to falsehoods is not less falsehoods, but more. So many in fact, that they just become noise.

Therefore, just require that 50% of what officials say is false, but then they document what falsehoods they said latter. They can also mark if something was a joke. If they fail to mark a falsehood as false, or a claim a truth-hood is false, that's a lie, and they will be punished.

It also means that members of the public need to do further research before believing what an official says, which they should be doing anyways.

You'll also want to make up some rules to prevent officials from making it obvious which statements they intend to be false, since otherwise they could "mark" the falsehoods by the way they speak, but then not mark falsehoods they want people to believe. People would filter out the marked statements, eliminating the purpose.

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You could keep your phrasing and add the sentence below after your first sentence:

Misrepresentation or presentation of false information made for the obvious purpose of causing amusement or laughter, without intent to deceive, such as jest, joke, or sarcasm, should not be considered misrepresentation or presentation of information in the present regulation/law.

PS: If the law forbids every lie, fibs included,in that context, sarcasm should also be outlawed. Sarcasm not only leads to miscommunication but can de considered as an expression of contempt——something in which representatives of the government/state should not engage.

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