Politics aside, most of us agree that US military personnel bravely work at jobs many of us don't want to do. Should their honorable service to the country be protected, and if so, how? Can the appreciation we feel for their service go too far?
The Stolen Valor Act (Act) is meant to protect the honor reserved for those who served in the US military. It does this by making it a crime for anyone to lie about having won a military medal or decoration, such as the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. Anyone violating the Act faces fines, up to one year in prison or both.
The Act has a noble goal: Only those who've served in the military should be able to claim the honor in doing so. But does the law go too far? Two federal courts think so.
The Alvarez Case
Xavier Alvarez was a public employee in southern California. During a public meeting with other state employees, he claimed to be a veteran of the US Marines and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor - the military's highest honor.
He lied. Not only about that, but other military heroics. He never served in the US military, and obviously never won any medals. Facing prosecution under the Act, Alvarez pleaded guilty and agreed to pay over $5,000 in fines, and ordered to pay $5,100 in fines, to perform over 400 hours of community service, and to serve three-years' probation. But, he kept his right to appeal, and appeal he did.
A federal appeals court agreed with Alvarez that the law was unconstitutional because it interfered with Alvarez's freedom of speech. Later, the court refused further review of the case. The court ruled that even white lies are entitled to First Amendment protection.
Same Decision in Colorado
In a very similar case, a Colorado federal court came to the same conclusion and ruled the law violated the First Amendment.
The US Supreme Court probably won't weigh in on the issue. The government never asked the Court to look at either cases during the 2011 session, even though the US Department of Justice promised to fight for the law - all the way to the US Supreme Court. It's possible, but unlikely, the government may ask the Court to look at the cases in the 2012 session.
However, in May 2011, a congressman from Nevada introduced the Stolen Valor Act of 2011. This law would make it crime for someone to benefit from lying about military service and wearing medals that weren't earned.
The Problem with the Law
The problem with the original Stolen Valor Act was that it punished each lie, regardless of motive. However, it would be one thing if the law made it crime to lie about military medals if the imposter was after monetary or some other gain. Defrauding people of money donations, for example. The law didn't do that, though.
Technically, you could have been arrested, fined and sent to jail for wearing a medal to a Halloween party and trying to impress someone by saying you won the medal in combat, when in fact you've never been more than 10 miles away from your childhood home in suburban America.
The 2011 version of the law seems to fix that particular problem. However, the First Amendment is still a barrier.
It's Not Easy Restricting Speech
As a general rule, when restricting your speech, there has to be a very good reason for it - it's a compelling interest in legal jargon. As the federal courts said, honoring and motivating our troops are important goals, but the original Stolen Valor Act wasn't necessary for reaching those goals.
And those who lie about winning medals, etc., don't pose any real threat to recruiting and maintaining a talented and skilled military organization.
The same can be said for the 2011 version of the law.
What You Can Do
Whether you're for or against the Stolen Valor Act, there are some things you can do to help make a change:
- Contact your representatives in the US House of Representatives and Senate and tell them how you feel about the law. They can always re-write it to avoid the First Amendment problems
- Tell your representatives and senators your opinion about the Military Valor Roll of Honor Act making its way through Congress in 2010-2011. If passed, a new searchable database will hold the names of US service members who've won military medals
- Help expose those who lie about their military experience and exploits by reporting them at sites like ReportStolenValor.org and StolenValor.com
It's hard to argue our active and veteran military personnel don't deserve their own special place of honor. The trick, of course, is to preserve that honor without interfering with the very rights our military often fights to protect. Perhaps the Stolen Valor Act went too far, but it's a worthwhile goal that can be met.
Questions For Your Attorney
- Can the Stolen Valor Act be enforced in states other than California and Colorado? Can my local police department arrest someone, or do I need to call the FBI or a federal agency?
- If the Supreme Court says the Act is illegal, what happens to people who were convicted of violating the law years ago?
- Can my state lawmakers pass a law like the Stolen Valor Act?