In ancient Athens, Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of the city-state. History has famously memorialized the philosopher’s statement that “I am to this city as to a lazy horse which is besieged by a stinging fly who will never stop rousing and reproving you.” Few recall, however, that facing his certain death, he recanted. “Didst thou not see the smiley face emoticon? No citizen of sound mind would conclude my little joke was truly a statement of fact. :)”
When Jesus was placed on trial, Pontius Pilate asked him if he was indeed a king. Jesus replied, “Thou sayest I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” But when Jesus realized that Pilate was displeased, he defended himself by saying, “No one of reason would believeth when I sayeth ‘I am the son of God’ that I maketh a statement of fact.”
George Washington is famously known for his honesty. Young George received a hatchet from his father and used it to cut down a cherry tree. As the story goes, when confronted by his angry father, the boy was said to have bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie . . . I did cut it with my hatchet. His father was proud of his son’s honesty and, instead of punishing him, embraced him. But recent scholarship reveals that, on his deathbed, Washington confessed, “No reasonable personage would conclude that what I told my father was truly a statement of fact.”
In 1925, John Scopes was accused of violating the State of Tennessee’s Butler Act that made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The “Scopes Monkey Trial,” as it became known, was famous for the confrontation between William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Although a strong advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Scopes caved under intense cross-examination from Bryan and said, “No reasonable person would believe that what I told my students about humans descending from apes was true.”
Hans Fritzsche was one of the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials after the end of World War Two. He had been, among other things, the head of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and a noted radio broadcaster. Fritzsche was one of the three Nuremberg defendants who was found Not Guilty. His successful defense is often attributed to his striking plea before the tribunal in which he argued, “No riesonable Mann vould conclude zat mein anti-Zemitic Verds vere truely Statements von Fact.”
More recently, last Fall, Fox News host Tucker Carlson found the charges against him dropped for having accused former Playboy Model, Karen McDougal, of having attempted to extort $150,000 from Donald Trump in exchange for her silence about an affair they had had. The judge in the case (a Trump appointee) concluded, “The ‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”
Now, defense lawyers for ex-Trump attorney. Sidney Powell, said in a court filing that “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements [their client made about 2020 election fraud] were truly statements of fact.” Powell is facing a billion-dollar defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, the company that made election equipment she said was involved in a conspiracy to steal the election from Trump.
Few people understand that, although Ms. Powell’s defense seems novel, it is in fact centuries old. As we go to press, her legal team is being sued for copyright infringement by all of the people mentioned above.