The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it possible to send someone to jail for the simple act of telling a lie.
Well, not just any lie. The act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, makes it a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison, to falsely claim "to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States."
The question of whether Congress should be in the business of criminalizing lies, even those in which people fraudulently claim to have performed heroic acts in uniform, comes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.
The case involves Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Water District Board in California. In 2007, at a joint meeting with a neighboring water district board, Alvarez introduced himself, saying "I'm a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I'm still around."
Alvarez was a inveterate liar who turns out to have had an extensive inventory of whoppers. He claimed to have played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and to have been married to a Mexican starlet. Those lies, once uncovered, brought him richly deserved ridicule that drove him from office. But his lie about winning the Medal of Honor led to a criminal conviction under the Stolen Valor Act that was eventually overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court found that the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. "If false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote.
The 9th Circuit ruling was constitutionally on target. As anyone knows who has set foot outside their front door, lies are common currency of the human race. By criminalizing a particular type of lie, no matter how despicable, Congress opened the door to criminalizing other kinds of lies.
That, in turn, raises the troubling question of whether Congress - yes, that Congress - should be able to determine what is a criminal lie and what isn't. Where is the bright line that separates lies that should be prosecuted and those that shouldn't? Should, for example, a government whistleblower be subject to prosecution if it can't be proven that his allegations are accurate? What about a presidential candidate who makes, hard as this is to imagine, outrageous claims about an opponent?
Of course, there are some lies that are legitimately subject to criminal prosecution. There is good reason for laws that make it illegal for someone to falsely claim to be a police officer or to defraud someone to obtain financial benefits. Such laws are intended to protect public safety and property and are fundamentally different from a law that criminalizes false claims of military heroism.
The Stolen Valor Act is a violation of the First Amendment, and it puts the government in the dangerous role of definer of lies and enforcer of truth. As in the case of Alvarez, lying about military heroism invites ridicule and disgrace. The government need not, and should not, be in the business of punishing such lies.
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Feb 22, 2012|
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