The Stolen Valor Act, passed by Congress in 2005, made is illegal for anyone to falsely claim, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded a U.S. military decoration. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The ruling by six Supreme Court justices proved that they simply do not understand how lying works in real life.
Lies must lead directly to fraud
The majority opinion in United States v. Alvarez, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, said that the Constitution does not allow speech to be prohibited solely because of its content—the message or ideas expressed. In other words, people are allowed to say anything they want, with a few exceptions, including obscenity, child pornography, threats and fraud.
Kennedy points out that “the First Amendment requires that there be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented.” He says that that the government may restrict speech where “false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable consideration, say, offers of employment.”
In other words, if a person lies to the Veterans Administration about receiving a military medal in order to receive higher disability benefits or a bigger pension, that’s illegal. But if a person claims to be a hero in a public meeting, as Xavier Alvarez did, without receiving an identifiable benefit directly as a result of the lie, then it’s not illegal.
Lies cause little harm
A concurring opinion was written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Elena Kagan. They agreed that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional, but for different reasons. They believed that the law harmed First Amendment rights, and the government could achieve its objective of protecting military honors through other means. In other words, the Stolen Valor Act was the legal equivalent of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.
The problem, Justice Breyer wrote, was that the Stolen Valor Act made the act of lying about medals illegal, without demanding that someone be harmed by the lies. Breyer stated:
As written, [the Stolen Valor Act] applies in family, social, or other private contexts, where lies will often cause little harm.
Lying about military honors causes little harm in social contexts? Excuse me?
James Montgomery’s lies
My ex-husband, James Montgomery, told me that he had won the Victoria Cross, which is the Australian equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his heroism in Vietnam. He claimed he was still in the Australian military, assigned to U.S. Special Forces. He showed me documents to back up his claims.
Montgomery didn’t only make these claims to me. He was active in the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Organization. He was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day ceremony, and twice I accompanied him as he told a classroom full of school children about his military service, including how sad he was when his buddies were killed.
It was all a lie. James Montgomery was never in the military.
Montgomery lied in a “family or social context.” Did I suffer harm? You bet. James Montgomery took $227,000 from me, telling me the money was for his “businesses.” He spent much of it entertaining other women. In our divorce, Montgomery was ordered to pay all my money back, plus $1 million in punitive damages for fraud.
Did I get the money? No—I only recovered $517. I had to declare bankruptcy.
I was not the only person Montgomery swindled. I know for sure that he took large amounts of money from at least five other women, and suspect that he took money from many others as well. I know of at least one businessman who lost $100,000. I know American Express tried to sue him, and many credit card companies wrote off his debts.
I also know that James Montgomery is not an isolated case.
Lovefraud Romantic Partner survey results
All sociopaths lie. And, as I discovered while researching my book, Red Flags of Love Fraud—10 signs you’re dating a sociopath, 10 percent of respondents to the Lovefraud Romantic Partner Survey said that the sociopaths they encountered lied about being in the military or Special Forces.
So what happened to these survey respondents? Many of them lost money, just like me. The 114 survey respondents who said the sociopath they encountered falsely claimed to be military lost the following amounts:
- Under $5,000 18%
- $5,000 – $9,999 10%
- $10,000 – $49,999 25%
- $50,000 – $99,999 18%
- $100,000 – $499,999 19%
- More than $500,000 11%
What else happened to these unsuspecting targets?
- 32% lost their home
- 67% incurred debt
- 37% were physically abused or injured
- 44% had their lives threatened
- 28% considered or attempted suicide
- 26% had lawsuits filed against them
- 16% had criminal charges filed against them
Intention to mislead
Sociopaths lie about military service, and military decorations, intending to deceive, mislead and ultimately harm their targets. How does this work?
Most Americans have high regard for members of the military. We recognize that our men and women in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us. These brave individuals do the difficult and often deadly work of preserving our freedom and protecting our way of life. For that, we honor and respect them.
When sociopaths claim to be military, their goal is to assume the mantle of respect and honor that that we confer upon true members of the military. These predators portray themselves as military so that we believe they can be trusted.
I suppose there are some people who simply engage in idle boasting when they claim military honors, and their lies, as Justice Breyer wrote, cause little harm. But I’m sure that many, many military impostors engage in their reprehensible behavior with a distinct agenda. They are lying in order to pull off a scam.
But it is not necessarily a direct cause-and-effect relationship. The fakers don’t necessarily lie to steal the benefits awarded to those who truly did earn the medals. Rather, the fakers lie to create a false perception that they are responsible and trustworthy, so that they can then steal money or other valuable commodities from the rest of us.
The justices’ view of the relationship between lies and harm is simplistic. Sociopaths are extremely sophisticated in how they use their lying and manipulation to take advantage of others. And now, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, they can do it with impunity.