July 16, 2012, Washington D.C.
"I’m a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001," said Xavier Alvarez, introducing himself at a 2007 meeting of the Claremont, Calif., district water board. "Back in 1987, I was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor [for bravery during the Iran hostage crisis]. I got wounded many times by the same guy."
Alvarez was a compulsive liar, and his story was a complete fabrication. His previous tales had included yarns about him playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and marrying a Mexican actress, but it was the Medal of Honor claim that landed him in hot water.
His boast violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, a law passed to stem a tide of people falsely claiming they had earned military honors. The act sought to uphold the prestige and reputations of those who really had earned awards by putting an end to an epidemic of liars and imposters.
Various reports show that false claims are disturbingly common:
An Illinois judge once claimed he had earned two Medals of Honor and displayed the counterfeit medals in his courtroom.
Half the people (24 of 49) who identified themselves as Medal of Honor recipients in a Library of Congress oral history project lied.
In just Virginia, more than 600 people falsely claimed they received the Medal of Honor in a single year.
These sorts of claims are made for many reasons: in the pursuit of free drinks, for an advantage in an election, to impress members of the opposite sex, or to improve the chances of getting hired. In many cases, such as Alvarez’s, the liars seek nothing more than praise, adulation, and unearned respect.
It has long been a crime for people to wear military medals they have not earned, in much the same way that it is illegal to impersonate a police officer or government employee. The Stolen Valor Act made it a crime not just to wear undeserved military awards, but even to say they received them.
Most cases, involving lies about Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, and so forth, were punishable by up to six months in prison.
The Medal of Honor, however, holds a special place in the military and societal pantheon. It signals extraordinary bravery in service to one’s country. Tellingly, more than half of the medals awarded since World War I were delivered posthumously. The act made Medal of Honor lies punishable by up to a year in prison.
Alvarez successfully appealed his conviction under the Stolen Valor Act all the way to the Supreme Court, by challenging the constitutionality of the law itself. On June 28, the court overturned the law in a six-to-three decision, ruling the act was unconstitutionally broad and therefore violated American rights to free speech.
The law did not require proof anyone was actually harmed by the false claims. Alvarez’s statements gained him nothing tangible. They were simply "a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the court’s majority opinion.
The Stolen Valor Act sought to protect the respect owed to real heroes, those who have risked their lives to earn their military decorations. Unfortunately, the act was so broadly written it would have allowed laws saying lying is a crime.
Worries that false claims are devaluing military awards seem unfounded. People lie about having earned the Medal of Honor because the medal is held in such high regard.
"Any true holders of the medal who had heard of Alvarez’s false claims would have been fully vindicated by the community’s expression of outrage," Kennedy noted in his opinion. Alvarez was humiliated and ridiculed. This surely outweighs any psychological benefit he got from the lie in the first place.
So, for the time being, the lowlifes of the earth are free to claim they earned military honors—just as in most cases it is legal to lie about education, jobs, sexual prowess, or nonexistent careers as professional athletes.
This is a tough decision to swallow. It is, however, the correct decision. The Constitution protects free speech except under the most narrow of exceptions.
"Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought," Kennedy wrote in his opinion. "One of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace."
In fact, several justices expressed hope that lawmakers would rewrite the act more narrowly, so it would pass constitutional muster. That is our hope as well. In the meantime, those who wish to defend true military heroes still have plenty of recourse.
First, there are already many concerned citizens on the lookout for frauds. These watchdogs should continue to check into questionable cases and ask hard questions. The chance of being exposed and humiliated is a huge risk to the insecure attention-seekers making these false claims, and the more negative attention the liars get, the less likely they are to continue or be copied.
Second, DOD should create an online database listing the recipients of all major military awards. The government first said an index would be "impracticable and insufficiently comprehensive," which sounds a lot like an excuse. Air Force Magazine publishes indexes of USAF’s Medal of Honor recipients, Air Force Cross awardees, and other heroes. Others keep even larger catalogs. The Pentagon should step up to what it now says is its goal and make an official database readily available.
Third, a new law could make it illegal to benefit from such lies. If a person loses an election, a promotion, or is beaten out for a job by someone claiming fake military honors, the honest person has been harmed. This material harm strengthens the argument that the lie became a crime. Congress should act to draft a new law, and some lawmakers have already pledged to do so.
Envious imposters will undoubtedly continue to disgrace themselves by claiming awards they did not earn. This takes nothing away from the true military heroes, however. Despite the downfall of the Stolen Valor Act, valor is earned, it is permanent, and it cannot be stolen.
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