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Is US a nation of liars? Casey Anthony isn't the only one.

Recent court cases – from Casey Anthony to Roger Clemens to Atlanta school teachers – may point to a prevalence of lying and cheating in US culture. Has America's moral compass gone haywire?

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"At a certain point, you're watching all these jerks and you say, 'What am I, a schmuck?' " says Douglas Porpora, a sociology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies moral and political communication. "A lot of people want to do the right thing, and after a while they say, 'You know what? I'm going to follow the jerks.' "

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Adds Mr. Callahan: "There just don't seem to be a lot of moral downsides to cutting corners" to improve lifestyles. "Every day there's new evidence of successful people who have cheated to get ahead, and it creates cynicism."

One solution to a lying epidemic, Stewart contends, is for institutions like the courts to come down harder on liars. Among other things, this could mean ending "slaps on the wrist" for white-collar criminals who weave webs of lies in their quest for fame and riches.

"The public is looking at the Clemens and Bonds cases and saying, 'Who cares about steroids anymore?' " says Peter Keane, a law professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "But then you look at what the government is concerned with, like in the Bonds case, where someone comes in and takes an oath before a grand jury and [then conducts himself as Mr. Bonds did]. If they get a pass on that, that goes to the heart and integrity and operation of the justice system in the United States."

Yet in a country that prizes free speech, the truth is that lies are difficult to prosecute. Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional parts of the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, signed by President Bush to stop people from lying about military commendations.

"The government cannot criminalize a statement simply because it is false, no matter how important the statement is," Chris Beall, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.

Despite what some see as cultural ambivalence about lying, Americans may at least be thinking a bit harder before twisting the truth. The latest Josephson report, for example, "shows some improvement in ethical behavior," according to the authors.

One possibility is that the constant parade of truth-twisting scandals may be causing Americans to think harder about personal morals. "I think there is a sense of cultural disappointment in these breaches and the lying that comes after them," says Professor Porpora.


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