Lying to America: Stolen Valor Act must be restored

Tough words, from an apparently tough man. Just one problem: Alvarez never served in any branch of the military, and certainly never received wounds or the Medal of Honor.

Falsely claiming military recognition of valor runs afoul of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which passed Congress with huge bipartisan support and signed into law by President Bush. But on Aug. 17, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the law is an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of speech. The American Legion, and a well-written dissent by a third justice of that court, strongly disagree with the faulty premise of the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

 “We have no doubt that society would be better off if Alvarez would stop spreading worthless, ridiculous, and offensive untruths,” the court’s majority wrote. “But, given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements, in order that clearly protected speech may flower in the shelter of the First Amendment.”

Clearly, the government already does that. Whether it be someone purporting to be a law enforcement official without authority, a commercial endeavor that employs deception or lies to sell its wares, or indeed, a public official who attempts to mislead authorities regarding the “sale” of a Senate seat, the government has decided that in some cases such policing must occur. And receipt of medals is not an event susceptible to various interpretations: one who has or has not been authorized the Medal of Honor knows the truth of the matter, and it is an award that is quite easily verifiable.

The majority further held that the proper way to deal with these phonies is by publicizing their perfidy, and thus exposing them to the scorn and disapprobation of actual veterans and citizens. As someone who has been engaged in the cottage industry of tracking down these fakers, I can attest to the fact that we will need a lot more people to adequately accomplish such a feat.

Alvarez is not alone in his shameful conduct. In Colorado, Rick “Duncan” Strandlof falsely claimed to be a veteran wounded at the battle of Fallujah, and used his constructed past as a jumping-off point, soliciting funds for veterans and appearing in numerous campaign commercials for candidates and causes. In Texas, Michael Patrick McManus appeared at a campaign rally dressed in a brigadier general’s uniform – complete with Purple Heart, Silver Star and even the insignia of a Commander of the British Empire. He was, of course, not entitled to wear any of those things.

In his dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Bybee notes that in giving “knowingly false lies” constitutional protection the Court may have overruled relevant precedent and “wholly confuse[d] the concept of unprotected speech.” Further, such a ruling “strikes down an act of Congress on its face despite the most important consideration to this case: no person has ever been subjected to an unconstitutional prosecution under the Stolen Valor Act and, under any reasonable interpretation of the Act, it is extremely unlikely that anyone ever will be.”

There is no reasonable fear that the government would use the Stolen Valor Act and similar legislation to punish speech of which it disapproves, nor is that what’s at stake in this case.  Honorable military service and acts of valor are laudable achievements that must not be sullied by every pretender walking the earth, assuming them as their own. The lies of Alvarez and his ilk are not of an online dating or barroom conversation variety, but strike at the very heart of a society that reveres and venerates its heroes. 

In October 2008, The American Legion passed a resolution that urged Congress to make Stolen Valor Act crimes punishable as felonies – not misdemeanors –  “in order to be a more effective deterrent and provide law enforcement with a more effective means to protect the reputation and meaning of military decorations and medals….”

The American Legion fervently hopes the federal government will appeal this horrible decision, and that the Supreme Court will find that some speech, be it threats or fraudulent statements of verifiable facts, are unworthy of rote defense on the grounds of free speech.

Mark Seavey is the new media director for The American Legion.