Law and the lie
Once again, the high court rules that it's necessary to protect unpopular speech by some to protect free speech by all
If there was ever an example of a solution in search of a problem, it's the Stolen Valor Act passed almost unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and signed into law in 2006 by President George W. Bush.
Last week, in a 6-3 decision that was overshadowed by the decision on Obamacare, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act as a violation of the First Amendment's free-speech protection.
The issue actually was more complicated than one might think at first blush. But the court's decision was a good one, not for the speech that was protected in this case, but for the prevention of future truth commissions that could put speech under microscopic examination.
The Stolen Valor Act made it a federal misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail to falsely claim to be the winner of a military decoration.
Board member Xavier Alvarez ran afoul of the law when, at his first meeting of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District board in Los Angeles County, he introduced himself as a former U.S. Marine and Medal of Honor winner.
Alvarez was neither, and his infantile effort to win the respect of his audience later brought him scorn, public ridicule and prosecution. Convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act, Alvarez was put on probation, fined $5,000 and ordered to perform community service. His appeal ultimately found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the issue was to what extent the First Amendment protects people's right to fib about themselves and their military accomplishments.
Critics of the law contended that it is far too broad and suppressed speech by covering innocent bragging, satire and false statements that cause no demonstrable harm. Supporters argued, correctly, that false statements are not protected by the First Amendment and, therefore, Alvarez was properly punished.
Incredibly, the government argued that the accomplishments of real war heroes who are honored for their valor is diminished when impostors claim to have won honors that they have not.
That argument simply has no merit. Ask yourself if you think less of a soldier who has won the Medal of Honor because another person falsely claimed to have won a Medal of Honor. There's no reason why anyone should.
Indeed, the reason that some people claim to have won awards for military bravery is because our society holds its war heroes in such high regard. That some seek the undeserved esteem of their fellow citizens should not, and does not, undermine the high honor accorded those who have distinguished themselves on the field of battle.
The most important question, however, is to what length should society be willing to go to punish those who falsely hold themselves out as war heroes.
What, for instance, did Alvarez gain, or think he was gaining, with his announcement at the water district meeting? He sought no tangible benefit from his lies, merely undeserved respect. That kind of behavior is more worthy of pity than prosecution.
Bearing in mind that not all personal embroidering is as cut-and-dried as it is in this case, is society willing to use scarce resources to test the truth or falsity of statements made by insecure status seekers?
It's far better to embrace the broad protections afforded by the First Amendment, as Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out in his majority opinion.
The First Amendment must protect the speech we abhor as well as the speech we embrace if Americans are to feel free to engage in a robust exchange of ideas on the topics of the day.
The sad reality of incidents like the one involving Alvarez and other like-minded poseurs is that liars usually fool only themselves. The stories they tell are of no great particular value, but criminalizing them could extract a high cost from the marketplace of ideas.