It’s a good thing that the last – and perhaps the final – punishment for the crime of “stolen valor” is public disdain. The American people, civilian and military alike, seem to acknowledge that falsely claiming to have served one’s country or been awarded medals for that service is among the most churlish of violations.
But jail? That’s another matter, said the U.S. Supreme Court last week, in a decision overshadowed by its rulings on the Arizona immigration law and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
A court majority upheld the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissal of a man’s conviction for lying about having earned the Medal of Honor, the highest award given to members of the military. (The award is held in such high regard that all military personnel are encouraged to salute a Medal of Honor recipient, regardless of rank.)
It’s not clear why Xavier Alvarez boasted at a public meeting that he’d been awarded the medal. But what was clear is this: He was lying about it. He pleaded guilty, on the condition he could challenge the Stolen Valor Act’s constitutionality in court on First Amendment grounds.
In upholding his challenge, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that, “Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought. The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.”
But the ruling also left room for criminal penalties if a law was crafted more narrowly, say, to penalize someone from profiting from falsehoods. And that’s where Rep. Joe Heck comes in. Nevada’s 3rd District congressman – and a full colonel in the Army reserves – has a bill that would prohibit lying about serving in the military or receiving military medals if one profits monetarily thereby.
“In this case, you’re actually stealing the valor of men and women who in some cases have made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Heck. (It’s true; more than half of the Medals of Honor awarded since World War II have been awarded posthumously.)
Heck says his military background inspired him to write a law that would still make stolen valor a crime, but would also comport with the Constitution. “I think it’s because of the people I’ve known who’ve earned these awards,” said Heck, commanding officer of a medical unit.
Under Heck’s bill, if a lie about military service leads to receiving unearned veteran’s benefits, medical care, job hiring preference, contract preferences for veterans or “any thing of value,” the liar can serve up to one year in prison and be fined.
And it appears that the law will stand: “Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment,” Kennedy’s ruling reads.
Heck’s bill has the bipartisan support of Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republican Mark Amodei, and an identical bill in the Senate is co-sponsored by Sen. Dean Heller. Heck says the bill could come to a final vote before the August recess.
“There’s pretty wide equanimity on this,” Heck says.
As there should be. Whether Republican or Democrat, civilian or military veteran, we can all agree that somebody who lies about performing great feats in the service of this country is among the lowest of the low.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.