Bragging about military honors you didn't receive is despicable yet still constitutional, says the Supreme Court. I agree. But help is on the way for those who want to weed out the fakers, if Congress can put aside its own battles long enough.
The First Amendment does not protect all lying, said the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. But it does protect lies like those told by Xavier Alvarez, a water district governing board member in eastern Los Angeles County.
"Lying was his habit," Kennedy wrote of Alvarez, whose fabrications the justice called "a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him." Alvarez at various times had claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and married a starlet from Mexico, among other colorful fictions.
But when he introduced himself in 2007 at a public meeting in Claremont, Calif., as a retired marine who was "awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor," he violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 that criminalizes such false claims of military honors.
Yet, loony as Alvarez's behavior sounds, Kennedy wrote, the law was so broad and intrusive that it threatened to do more harm than good to free speech rights. The law failed to take into account whether the lie takes place in public or at home, whether the liar sought some material gain or whether actual harm was done to the reputation of those who had earned the Medal of Honor.
Quite the contrary, Kennedy suggested, the major outrage and ridicule to which Alvarez has been subjected only serves to reinforce the high regard for which most Americans hold such honors. "The facts of this case," he wrote, "indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie."
Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, and Rep. Joe Heck, a Nevada Republican, are introducing a new version of the Stolen Valor Act with a key addition aimed at punishing phony heroes whose lies pose actual danger. Their new version would prosecute those who not only lie but also do it to "profit or benefit," said Brown.
Critics say the law is not necessary, since existing laws already prohibit lying to commit fraud. Yet, experts and activists like Pam Sterner, whose college term paper led her to become a driving force behind the Stolen Valor Act, feel the law can be very useful in going after those whose war lies are only early steps toward more serious crimes.
"The Stolen Valor Act was not about putting grandpa in jail for telling war stories over the dinner table," she said after the court ruling. "All of the cases I have seen are serious and almost always include other criminal activity."
Some have been found by her husband Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who is curator of "Halls of Valor," a searchable database at the Military Times website (www.militarytimes.com). A mission that began as a hunt for phony warriors has turned into a career of trying to make confirmation easily accessible in a convenient one-stop database for every legitimate medal honoree.
Sterner has spent the past 15 years trying to produce an easy place to confirm who has won a medal above the level of the Bronze Star and who hasn't — all the way back to the Civil War. It hasn't been easy, he says, since so many military records are lost, stolen or strayed.
As a result, he not only has found awards that were not earned but also some awardees who had received delayed medals and didn't know it.
So far, his website says it has 104,781 out of an estimated 350,000 awards above the Bronze Star. A complete database could be set up for $8 million to $10 million, he estimates.
That's a task the Pentagon should take on. Compared to other defense spending, that doesn't sound like a lot of money to make sure history remembers our heroes who have earned their honors — and cleans out the phonies who don't.