Should Lying About Receiving A Military Medal Be Covered Under Free Speech?

Should it be illegal for a man to tell others he won the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), the U.S. military’s highest honor awarded to those who served with distinguished valor in action against enemy forces, when he did not?  Likewise, should it be illegal for a man to say he was awarded any U.S. military medal, decoration, ribbon, etc. when he was not?  Is lying about one’s military career, whether real or fictitious, covered under the First Amendment?    

According to the Stolen Valor Act, signed by U.S. President George W. Bush on December 20, 2006, it is a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having “been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item.”

If one falsely represents himself/herself as having received any of the aforementioned awards, he/she could spend up to six months in prison.  However, if one lies about receiving the CMH, he/she could spend up to a year in prison. 

A man by the name of Xavier Alvarez was the first individual to be tried and convicted for breaking the Stolen Valor Act when he prevaricated about receiving the CMH back in 2006.  For his unlawful behavior the presiding Judge gave him a $5,000 fine and 416 hours of community service.

However, Alvarez appealed the ruling on the grounds that the Stolen Valor Act violated his First Amendment – he won the appeal. 

The federal appeals court found the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional:

The issue before the justices comes from the San Francisco–based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled if it were to uphold the law, “then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway.

Last Thursday, in an effort to ensure that Alvarez pays for his crime, the Justice Department petitioned the Supreme Court to back the initial ruling because misrepresenting oneself as a decorated military veteran “damages the reputation and meaning of such decorations and medals.”  Moreover the Justice Department argued that in this particular instance Alvarez’s First Amendment rights were not infringed because “the speech fits into the ‘narrowly limited’ classes of speech, such as defamation, that is historically unprotected by the First Amendment.” 

Putting the legal and constitutional matters aside, one would imagine that we could all find consensus in the fact that lying about receiving the CMH, or any military award, is a classless act.  And, one would think that the spurn one receives and the shame one feels for doing so lasts much longer, and cuts much deeper, than any punishment meted out by lawmakers.