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 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 or Facebook, those lies aren’t in the same league. No one earns a mantel of respect for participating in 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.

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

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

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