(Published in The Washington Post, March 12, 2012)
While we hold the military’s honor sacred, the government cannot penalize speech, whether true or false, simply because it might harm this honor.
Any law that seeks to protect the government’s reputation runs afoul of the most basic bargain of sovereignty, reflected in our Constitution. James Madison said, “The censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.” In this context, it is doubtful that the government can ever be libeled by a citizen, any more than a citizen can libel himself. We don’t let the government sue for libel — only individual officials. And even if the government could be libeled, the First Amendment forbids laws banning speech that challenges or impugns the government’s reputation.