The Price of the First Amendment “Is That We Must Put Up With … a Good Deal of Rubbish”

I was rereading one of my favorite opinions—Justice Jackson’s dissent in U.S. v. Ballard (1944)—and I thought I’d pass it along. The defendants were convicted for using the mails to defraud people into joining (for money) the “I Am” movement. The alleged false claims were,

that Guy W. Ballard, now deceased, alias Saint Germain, Jesus, [and] George Washington, … had been selected … as a divine messenger; and that … the words of the alleged divine entity, Saint Germain, would be transmitted to mankind through the medium of … Guy W. Ballard;

that [the Ballards], by reason of their alleged high spiritual attainments and righteous conduct, had been selected as divine messengers through which the words of … Saint Germain[] would be communicated to mankind under the teachings commonly known as the “I Am” movement;

that [the Ballards] had, by reason of supernatural attainments, the power to heal persons of … [incurable] diseases …, … and … had in fact cured … hundreds of persons ….

The court concluded that it was permissible to convict the (surviving) Ballards based on a showing that they didn’t sincerely believe what they were saying, though the jury couldn’t consider the truth or falsehood of what they were saying. Justice Jackson dissented:

I should say the defendants have done just that for which they are indicted. If I might agree to their conviction without creating a precedent, I cheerfully would do so. I can see in their teachings nothing but humbug, untainted by any trace of truth. But that does not dispose of the constitutional question whether misrepresentation of religious experience or belief is prosecutable; it rather emphasizes the danger of such prosecutions….

In the first place, as a matter of either practice or philosophy I do not see how we can separate an issue as to what is believed from considerations as to what is believable. The most convincing proof that one believes his statements is to show that they have been true in his experience. Likewise, that one knowingly falsified is best proved by showing that what he said happened never did happen.

How can the Government prove these persons knew something to be false which it cannot prove to be false? If we try religious sincerity severed from religious verity, we isolate the dispute from the very considerations which in common experience provide its most reliable answer.

In the second place, any inquiry into intellectual honesty in religion raises profound psychological problems…. [I]t is not theology and ceremonies which keep religion going. Its vitality is in the religious experiences of many people …[:] “… conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.”

If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand and are almost certain not to believe him.

And then I do not know what degree of skepticism or disbelief in a religious representation amounts to actionable fraud…. Belief in what one may demonstrate to the senses is not faith. All schools of religious thought make enormous assumptions, generally on the basis of revelations authenticated by some sign or miracle. The appeal in such matters is to a very different plane of credulity than is invoked by representations of secular fact in commerce.

Some who profess belief in the Bible read literally what others read as allegory or metaphor, as they read Aesop’s fables. Religious symbolism is even used by some with the same mental reservations one has in teaching of Santa Claus or Uncle Sam or Easter bunnies or dispassionate judges. It is hard in matters so mystical to say how literally one is bound to believe the doctrine he teaches and even more difficult to say how far it is reliance upon a teacher’s literal belief which induces followers to give him money….

If the members of the [“I Am”] sect get comfort from the celestial guidance of their “Saint Germain,” however doubtful it seems to me, it is hard to say that they do not get what they pay for. Scores of sects flourish in this country by teaching what to me are queer notions. It is plain that there is wide variety in American religious taste. The Ballards are not alone in catering to it with a pretty dubious product.

The chief wrong which false prophets do to their following is not financial. The collections aggregate a tempting total, but individual payments are not ruinous. I doubt if the vigilance of the law is equal to making money stick by over-credulous people.

But the real harm is on the mental and spiritual plane. There are those who hunger and thirst after higher values which they feel wanting in their humdrum lives. They live in mental confusion or moral anarchy and seek vaguely for truth and beauty and moral support. When they are deluded and then disillusioned, cynicism and confusion follow.

The wrong of these things, as I see it, is not in the money the victims part with half so much as in the mental and spiritual poison they get. But that is precisely the thing the Constitution put beyond the reach of the prosecutor, for the price of freedom of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish….

I do not doubt that religious leaders may be convicted of fraud for making false representations on matters other than faith or experience, as for example if one represents that funds are being used to construct a church when in fact they are being used for personal purposes. But that is not this case, which reaches into wholly dangerous ground.

When does less than full belief in a professed credo become actionable fraud if one is soliciting gifts or legacies? Such inquiries may discomfort orthodox as well as unconventional religious teachers, for even the most regular of them are sometimes accused of taking their orthodoxy with a grain of salt. I would dismiss the indictment and have done with this business of judicially examining other people’s faiths.

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