An ethical conundrum

Truth v. Free Speech

There’s an interesting article in the LA Times on the subject of Truth versus Free Speech.

Several media outlets published critical stories about working conditions in Asian factories where Nike’s athletic shoes are made, prompting Nike’s response. A San Francisco activist contended that Nike lied in its press releases and letters to newspapers and athletic directors, and sued the company for false advertising.

The corporation argued that its statements were protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech. Lower courts agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.
The state high court, however, said Thursday that the statements were commercial in nature and subject to a broad California law that prohibits misleading advertising.

When a corporation makes “factual representations about its own products or its own operations, it must speak truthfully,” Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the majority.

This is quite a conundrum. Which is more important: Truth or Freedom of Speech? I’m all for “truth, justice, and the American way” but what do you do when that conflicts with the Bill of Rights? I’m of a mind that you have to go with the First Amendment on this one. If a company lies it will eventually pay the piper. Karma always works somehow. Once the Truth is revealed, the corporation will suffer the consequences and the “invisible hand” will prevail. Or am I being too idealistic? I don’t think so. The “invisible hand” is amazing because it always works and the less government intervention in its rule the better. I can see how this would be a horrible instance of applying Darwinian principles to business, though. What if a company advertises, “Yes, you can take our cold medicine even if you have taken another one,” and the result is death? The free-market and the press will eventually force the company to recognize that it’s marketing propaganda is erroneous, but not until at least one person is dead. So does that mean that the government should not defend the rights of the (innocent / ignorant) consumer? What a dilemma!

link via metafilter

2024-02-20: Broken links in this post have been removed and/or updated.

There are 2 comments on this post

  1. avatar
    eric the other e

    You are certainly right David, this is a sticky one. While I agree that the “invisible hand” will in time work its magic, and less government is more often than not for the better, the problem here is that the “invisible hand” can often take its sweet time to put things right. And in that time, as you pointed out, people can be put in harm’s way by these companies’ actions, or inactions as the case may be.

    Therefore, I’m of the school of thought that big business just can’t be trusted with the responsibilty to enjoy the freedom afforded by the 1st. I am suspect of their ability to avoid being compromised by the bottom line and instead act in the people’s best interest. Further, the “hand” is too ineffectual here to ensure our safety and well being. To let large corporations enjoy the 1st Amendment while letting the “hand” protect us could be analogous to saying, “Don’t worry about that fire, in the end they always burn themselves out.”

  2. Does Free Speech lead to truth or not? That is the question I am puting forward to you

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