Stolen Valor Act ruling a fair one

Xavier Alvarez, of California, at a 2007 public meeting, said that he received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

He lied.

Alvarez also claimed he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings. A lie. And that he married a Mexican starlet. Another lie.

But for the first embellishment, he was convicted of breaking the law under the Stolen Valor Act, which heretofore made it a crime to lay false claim to earning military honors.

That is no longer the case. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a recent decision buried in the uproar of its controversial ruling on President Barack Obama’s health care law.

On the surface, such a ruling would appear outrageous. After all, Alvarez’s claim diminishes the most rare and significant award anyone can earn in the military service of this country.

For that matter, any distinguished service decoration is made less so by such fabrications. Understandably so, veterans’ organizations and medal recipients decried the ruling as promoting false heroes such as Alvarez.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr., in writing a dissenting view, said there has been “an epidemic of false claims about military decorations … that were inflicting real harm on actual medal recipients and their families.”

So why do we applaud the court for its 6-3 ruling, tossing out Alvarez’s conviction?

Because it was the proper decision for a greater good – the First Amendment.

Jonathan Libby, the Los Angeles lawyer representing Alvarez, said people should be upset his client lied. But, he added, “the First Amendment protects a lot of what we as Americans get to say. The government doesn’t get to decide what we can and cannot say.”

Moreover, the government should never get to say unequivocally what is a truth and what is not. The judicial system, quite properly, has that responsibility. And, in this case, the Supreme Court has made it clear that even such detestable actions as lying about one’s military record does not rise to the level of a crime.

Justice Anthony Kennedy observed that preserving this law would be tantamount to letting government draw up a list “about which false statements are punishable.” That is not a power we want government leaders to have. And in case anyone forgets, there have been more than a few of those who have fabricated their military histories.

The court has broadened free speech in recent rulings. For instance, it ruled it’s OK to protest at military funerals and that outlawing violent video game sales to minors is unconstitutional. These and other such rulings would seem to test certain moral standards, but protecting speech is never simple and often uncomfortable.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the Stolen Valor Act could be tailored to stand constitutional muster by requiring a showing that a falsehood did cause harm. That may not be easy to accomplish, but those outraged by the ruling should come up with wording that more clearly defines such claims as fraud.

Some groups promise to do so.

“There needs to be a penalty for this type of ruse,” said Harold Fritz, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and a recipient of the award for service in the Vietnam War. “It’s more than just a piece of metal suspended on a piece of cloth on a pin, and people who abuse that need to be penalized.”

We understand Fritz’s point, but the First Amendment is at the core of
this country’s meaning and existence. Allowing government to chip away at the rights it provides would diminish greatly the acts of bravery by the true medal winners in defending these freedoms.