Clarence Page: Weeding out phony warriors

BY CLARENCE PAGE Published: July 14, 2012
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Bragging about military honors you didn't receive is despicable yet still constitutional, says the Supreme Court. I agree. But help is on the way for those who want to weed out the fakers, if Congress can put aside its own battles long enough.

The First Amendment does not protect all lying, said the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. But it does protect lies like those told by Xavier Alvarez, a water district governing board member in eastern Los Angeles County.

“Lying was his habit,” Kennedy wrote of Alvarez. Alvarez at various times had claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and married a starlet from Mexico, among other colorful fictions.

But when he introduced himself in 2007 at a public meeting in Claremont, Calif., as a retired Marine who was “awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor,” he violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 that criminalizes such false claims of military honors.

Yet, loony as Alvarez's behavior sounds, Kennedy wrote, the law was so intrusive that it threatened to do more harm than good to free-speech rights. The law failed to take into account whether the lie takes place in public or at home, whether the liar sought some material gain or whether actual harm was done to the reputation of those who had earned the Medal of Honor.

Quite the contrary, Kennedy suggested, the major outrage and ridicule to which Alvarez has been subjected only serves to reinforce the high regard for which most Americans hold such honors. “The facts of this case,” he wrote, “indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie.”

Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, and Rep. Joe Heck, a Nevada Republican, are introducing a new version of the Stolen Valor Act with a key addition aimed at punishing phony heroes whose lies pose actual danger. Their new version would prosecute those who not only lie but also do it to “profit or benefit,” Brown said.

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