Thursday, October 20, 2011
Few things are more repugnant than someone lying about acts of military valor during war when the person was no hero or didn't even serve in the military.
Given that, it is understandable why Congress overwhelmingly approved in 2006 the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal crime to lie about being awarded the Medal of Honor or any other medal.
Yet, the approval of this law takes the government down a path it should not travel -- it makes federal officials the truth police. In that role the government could too easily curb free speech.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in California struck down the Stolen Valor Act as unconstitutional. But the fate of the law will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider an appeal of the California court's ruling.
In the case, Xavier Alvarez, a member of the water district board in Pomona, Calif., said at a public meeting that he was a retired Marine who had received the Medal of Honor. The fact is he never served in the military. He also claimed, according to the Los Angeles Times, to have "played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, worked as a police officer, rescued the U.S. Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis and married a Mexican starlet."
Alvarez was indicted and pleaded guilty with the understanding that he would challenge the law's constitutionality in his appeal.
A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to strike down the law. The majority said there is no evidence that lies such as the one told by Alvarez harm anybody and there is no compelling reason to make a crime out of them.
"The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time," Judge Milan Smith wrote for the court's majority. "Given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements."
Exactly. If false statements regarding military service or anything else result in real harm -- as opposed to anger or hurt feelings -- there is legal recourse. The person making the false claims can be sued for damages.
Seeking to making lying a crime has failed in the past. In Washington state, for example, a law was approved in 1999 that made it illegal for politicians to lie about their opponents. It was ruled unconstitutional.
"The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment," state Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson wrote.
The Stolen Valor Act should be looked at the same way. If people are lying about their military service and the medals they earned, they must be denounced and their actions vilified. Public opinion is the best way to put an end to these lies.