Scrap the Stolen Valor Act

Back in 1999, I was editing a story about a Vietnam War vet for a special section in The Morning Call and a flag went up. The guy was making some claims about his own heroism. It didn’t sit right. I went to see him, and his claims got even wilder. When I asked to see proof that he was in Vietnam, he couldn’t produce it. The story never got in the paper. I’m sure it wasn’t true.

I bring this up because the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments on whether the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional. The law, which Congress passed in 2005, during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, makes it a crime to falsely claim that you’ve won military honors.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the law violates the right to free speech. An appeals court in Denver upheld it, saying the First Amendment doesn’t always protect false statements. That’s the Obama administration’s take: that the law specifically protects the system of military honors Gen. George Washington put in place during the Revolution.

As awful as it is for someone to puff himself up by claiming he was awarded a Medal of Honor or other high decoration, I can’t get past the idea that we’re making criminals out of people for something they said. It doesn’t make sense that in this country, you can go to prison for lying – as reprehensible as the lie is. Better to expose the faker and hold him up to public disgrace.

The appeals court in San Francisco had this good suggestion: “Preserving the valor of military decorations is unquestionably an appropriate and worthy governmental objective that Congress may achieve through, for example, publicizing the names of legitimate recipients.”

Some lawmakers have jumped on that, criticizing the Defense Department for not having a searchable database of medal recipients. One Pentagon official responded that there’s a benefit to that, but is it worth the cost?

Even without a central database of medal recipients, there are online resources you can use to check on someone’s claims to bravery. There’s the Congressional Medal of Honor site, http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-archive.php, and the Military Times Hall of Valor site, http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/.

And if you want a big picture, read Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History, a 1998 book by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. It’s a shocker.

We already have a federal law that bars folks from wearing military medals they didn’t earn. That’s something you’d do, not say. We should leave it at that and get the government out of the business of identifying and prosecuting liars. I say overturn the Stolen Valor Act.

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