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Freedom to lie: Stolen Valor Act ruled unconstitutional

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it illegal for anyone to claim military decorations that he or she did not earn. It’s a straightforward law that states:

Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

On August 17, 2010, the law was found to be unconstitutional by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. According to the court, the Stolen Valor Act violated the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

I was shocked. The Appeals Court, in a 2-1 decision, protected the freedom to lie.

Alvarez case

The case was United States of America vs. Xavier Alvarez, which I wrote about six months ago in Stolen Valor v. First Amendment.

Not only did Xavier Alvarez make up fantasy stories about nonexistent military heroics, but he ran for political office and then falsely claimed health benefits for his ex-wife. He was convicted of driving under the influence and driving on a suspended license.

In its decision, the appellate court says, “Alvarez makes a hobby of lying about himself to make people think he is ”˜a psycho from the mental ward with Rambo stories.’”

Unfortunately, this description makes Alvarez sound like a delusional loony tune, who went around telling tall tales for no apparent reason. However, given his other behavior—fraud, alcohol abuse, disregarding the law—I think the guy sounds like a sociopath.

Sociopaths, Lovefraud readers know, sometimes lie for no reason, but they usually lie to exploit and manipulate others.

The arguments

In this appellate court case, Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote the opinion for the majority, with Judge Thomas G. Nelson assenting. Judge Jay S. Bybee dissented.

Here are the basics of the argument.

The majority struck down the Stolen Valor Act because:

  • Speech should not be prohibited just because it is a lie
  • The Stolen Valor Act does not require that the person making false claims do so with malice.
  • The Stolen Valor Act does not require that the false claims cause irreparable harm.

The dissent argued:

  • The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment does not protect false statements.
  • Therefore, false statements may be prohibited, even if they’re made without malice.
  • A false statement doesn’t have to cause harm in order to be prohibited.

In arguing the case, the government stated that allowing people to lie about receiving military decorations demeaned the value of the honors, and was a grave dishonor to all the men and women who served in the military.

The court didn’t buy this argument. Soldiers do not act heroically in the heat of battle, the judges stated, thinking that they may later be awarded a medal. They act heroically to achieve a military objective or to save lives. Therefore, the court concluded that people who lie about earning medals do no harm to the valiant soldiers who actually did earn medals. There were no victims.

The real victims

The problem, as I see it, is that the court is looking in the wrong place for victims.

The court wrote:

There is no readily apparent reason for assuming, without specific proof, that the reputation and meaning of military decorations is harmed every time someone lies about having received one. To the contrary, the most obvious reason people lie about receiving military honors is because they believe that their being perceived as recipients of such honors brings them acclaim, suggesting that generally the integrity and reputation of such honors remain unimpaired.

I honor and respect the valor and sacrifice of all members of the United States military. But I agree with the court on this point—although people who falsely claim to have won medals are despicable, their lies do not detract from those who legitimately earned military decorations.

Instead, the honor of military decorations is sullied when liars falsely claim them in order to exploit others.

The victims, therefore, are not the legitimate medal winners. The victims are regular citizens who are deceived, swindled and exploited by con artists who claim to be medal winners.

James Montgomery

This happened to me. My ex-husband, James Montgomery, told me that he’d spent 35 years in the military. He told me he served in Vietnam and won the Victoria Cross, which is the Australian equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his heroism. He sent me a “Mention in Dispatches” document that described how he single-handedly fought the enemy so his wounded comrades could be evacuated.

Well, Montgomery never won the medal. He never served in Vietnam. In fact, he was never in the military.

But he was convincing, and it never occurred to me that someone would lie about something as big and important as winning a country’s highest military honor. So, because I perceived him to be honorable, I married him and agreed to fund his business ventures. He took a quarter-million dollars from me.

Lovefraud has 40 more cases of people who were exploited by sociopaths who claimed to serve in the military. Most of the claims were false.

Mantel of respect

So the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals court worries the Stolen Valor Act tramples on the right of free speech. Judge Smith wrote that if the law were ruled constitutional:

then there would be no constitutional bar criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial Status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway.

Although I’d like it to be illegal to lie on Match.com or Facebook, those lies aren’t in the same league. No one earns a mantel of respect for participating in Match.com or Facebook. In fact, they’re likely to be viewed as liars.

But military decorations do convey a mantel of respect. And those who falsely claimed to have earned them hijack that respect—usually with the intention of exploiting others.


Comment on this article

11 Comments on "Freedom to lie: Stolen Valor Act ruled unconstitutional"

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It IS against the law to lie to a police officer, or an FBI agent, or any other law enforcement officer, and you can be prosecuted for that so why aren’t those laws also struck down by the first ammendment?

I hope this will be appealed to the supreme court. Thanks for keeping us updated on this, Donna, I’m with you all the way on this one. Totally agree.

OxD,

Technically it’s not against the law to lie to law enforcement. You can, however, be prosecuted for obstruction of justice or hindering an investigation.

In most states it is a felony to impersonate a law enforcement officer, a position of authority. It’s sad that it’s not a felony to impersonate a position of honor, those who serve in our military.

Benz

Good Afternoon All,

I have been a newsletter subscriber for quite a while, but this will be my first post…hit a real nerve (not that several other topics haven’t, you may very well see more of my posts as time passes.

Anyway, the reason I am posting today is because, as a Veteran who served in two branches of our military; honorably & faithfully, I would just like to add something that seems NOT to be addressed in the media or any other outlet that discusses this miscarriage of justice pertaining to the “Stolen Valor” act.

The basis of this act is to protect the most highest awarded medals awarded to our true heroes from being besmirched by embellisher’s, fakers, posers, wannabes, and “never-weres” (I made that one up). It is NOT the issue of just lying; freedom of speech…NO!!

It is about the majority of these “kind” that falsely use these medals, awards, false papers to bilk the American People and more to the point, the true heroes of their Veteran Compensation Benefits & Pensions. There are a few medals/awards that the Dept. of Veteran Affairs gives extra compensation for i.e. money as well as other benefits….

…THAT, is the real crime! These people are STEALING from the Federal Government, from every one of us….from every one of you that think that it’s OK for them to lie by wearing our country’s highest medal’s of honor & respect to our courageous fighters.

I am appalled that no one can see the blatant disregard for honor & integrity in the way these con artists are using their skills on the backs of so many of our Walking Wounded Heroes…I say that because THEY are usually the ones that honestly have earned those awards, medals & benefits.

Quote:Alvarez case

The case was United States of America vs. Xavier Alvarez, which I wrote about six months ago in Stolen Valor v. First Amendment.

Not only did Xavier Alvarez make up fantasy stories about nonexistent military heroics, but he ran for political office and then falsely claimed health benefits for his ex-wife.”

End Quote

Falsely claimed health benefits for his ex-wife…money out of YOUR pockets….JUST a LIE?

This is a very sore subject for me because I receive VA Comp for several health reasons; most are internal…and, I am constantly being called out as a poser. I don’t walk around with medals anywhere on me or my unit citations…I have been vetted by several organizations but, because there are so many frauds out there, some of us who carry our “battle scars” on the inside, we will always be looked at & questioned a bit more thoroughly.

Aim High & Semper Fidelis!
Thia

Thia, I understand your sence of injustice. A very justified one I might add. Thank-you for serving our country, and being couragious, and putting yourself on the line. You deserve a medal for that. And F the ass-holes that claim that heroic for themselves. Liars, cowards, thieves!

Kimm said what I am thinking as well! Glad you are here Thia. Welcome.

Donna, How’d you like that last sentence?

“happens rarely and does little harm?”

LOL ROTFLMAO I bet you can counter that one!

To me, for what it’s worth, it is like “free speech” protecting the person who yells FIRE in a crowded theater–that’s NOT free speech IMHO. Threatening to kill the president is not “free speech” either and will get you locked up tighter than a drum. THREATENING to burn a book is okay, even if it causes RIOTS and deaths all over the world…I personally think that effort was a “hate crime.” So where do we draw the line?

Will be interesting to see what happens. Thanks for the link, Donna.

Hiya Oxy,
Just a tidbit about yelling fire in a crowded theatre. The courts did decide that one and ruled it is NOT protected free speech. For once, common sense prevailed. Now how often does that happen?!

But that hasn’t guided all kinds of other nonsense, like striking down the Stolen Valor Act. “Little harm” is subjective. As the recipient of my husbands behavior, he frequently excused what he did b/c it “wasn’t that bad”, kinda like a man beating the sh*t out of a dog and saying “it didn’t hurt me” so it was “little harm done”.

When someone uses a position of authority to gain fraudulent advantage of any kind, whether monetary, reputation, or benefits, I liken it to the Same logic used to raise regular assault to a “hate crime” assault. BOTH are assaults but determining hate crime raises the level of assault.

Stolen Valor is about fraud, but it uses a position of authority to commit that fraud, and as such it raises the level of fraud, and therefore should carry a heavier penalty than regular (?!) fraud. I know fraud is hard to prove, but the method of doing it by Stolen Valor would be easy to prove and seems to be would be easier to prosecute and prevail and as such, provides a means to limit someone’s ability to commit fraud. A Deterrent?

KAtyDid,

I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU!!! You put it so well in your post. I am not sure that a psychopath would be deterred by anything (there are already laws against murder, rape, assault and fraud which they disregard so wouldn’t help there) LOL

Your point though is that it should be illegal and fraud to claim something you didn’t earn.

If you get a job by claiming you have a college degree or a medical license you didn’t earn that is FRAUD, so why is it not fraud to claim military honors or service. It isn’t “JUST A LIE!”

Oxy,
I do agree that the guy threatening to burn the Koran seems to be a nutcase. But I also don’t excuse those other wackos who fanned the flames. Why give that guy a national forum to spew his hate? As such, they aided and abetted the hate. ALL LEGAL.!?! NOT MORAL.

Another animal analogy that was recently in the news… the bear guy. LEGAL to have a bear. LEGAL to sell the opportunity for others to wrestle the bear? But NOT moral.

KatyDid, I hadn’t seen that one about bear wrestling! DUMB!!! For sure!!!!

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