In a move to resolve free-speech issues with the current federal law that targets military impostors and those who embellish or falsify their service records, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., proposed a Stolen Valor Act amendment Thursday to protect the integrity of real war heroes and the medals they received.
"I think this bill will help protect that honor. We think that we’ve been able to amend the law to pass constitutional review," Heck said in a telephone interview before submitting the bill .
"Stolen valor" is the term used to describe phonies who lie about their military decorations and service records, dishonoring military courage.
The bill adds a section to the existing law that makes it an offense for anyone who, "with intent to obtain anything of value, knowingly makes a misrepresentation regarding his or her military service."
"If the misrepresentation is that such individual served in a combat zone, served in a special operations force, or was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor," then the offender will be subject to a fine, a year in prison or both, states the measure, which has 31 co-sponsors.
The bill attempts to clarify a gray area of the law in regard to fraud and white lies. A federal appeals court in San Francisco last year overturned the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 on grounds that Xavier Alvarez knowingly lied when he portrayed himself as a Medal of Honor recipient at a water district board meeting.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that the law violates the First Amendment protecting free speech, even the freedom to lie.
Heck, an emergency room physician who served as a reservist in the Iraq War, said he doesn’t think his measure will affect those who lie about military service without trying to gain something of value, though "lying about that is horrible."
"If you’re at a bar or a party and tell somebody you got a Medal of Honor in idle chit-chat, it’s not going to affect you," he said.
"If you’re using it to commit fraud, trying to purchase something or receive something of value by saying you served in a combat zone or are a member of an elite unit, then this law would take effect."
Anything of value could mean someone lying about his or her service record to get a job or obtaining something that has relative significant value as determined by the court.
"We tried to limit it to something of value to keep that First Amendment challenge out of the picture," Heck said.
"If you’re just saying in a speech or talk around the water cooler at the office, it’s no big deal. If a person is charged under this law and their defense is it’s ‘de minimis’ (little value), then a judge or jury would determine if it’s inconsequential."
In a letter to colleagues Tuesday, Heck explained why he is proposing the bill.
"Adding provisions that define an individual’s purpose and intent to misrepresent their service will ensure that our First Amendment rights are protected, while preserving the honor and valor of brave men and women in uniform," he wrote.
"It will ensure that those who served and sacrificed are properly recognized and prevent those seeking false praise from benefiting from the service of others."
The bill, he said, also strengthens current law "by expanding the definition of misrepresentation to include any false claims of military service, service in a combat zone and service in a special operations force."
The bill is similar to a Nevada measure that is being considered by the Legislature.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.