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Give this judge a medal

A federal judge in Colorado has struck down a law that is typical of legislation that runs afoul of the 1st Amendment: It was both politically popular and unnecessary. The Stolen Valor Act made it a crime to claim falsely to have received medals and other military decorations.

As The Times observed in an editorial in February: The law "would criminalize speech that, although admittedly offensive, is far removed from the kind of serious crime -- such as extortion, fraud or incitement to riot -- in which speech merges into harmful conduct and may therefore be outlawed. And if Congress can make it a crime to lie about or exaggerate one's military record, why wouldn't it be constitutional to criminalize misrepresentation about educational attainments or the circumstances of one's birth?"

The judge likewise focused on free-speech issues. He also offered a pithy reply to the argument that misrepresentations about receiving military decorations diluted their significance: "This wholly unsubstantiated assertion is frankly, shocking and indeed, unintentionally insulting to the profound sacrifices of military personnel the Stolen Valor Act purports to honor," Judge Robert Blackburn wrote. "To suggest that the battlefield heroism of our servicemen and women is motivated in any way, let alone in a compelling way, by considerations of whether a medal may be awarded simply defies my comprehension."

A more practical objection to the law is that, thanks to the Internet, it is easy to find out if someone is "stealing honor." For example, the names of Medal of Honor recipients can be accessed at a convenient website. And if a military resume-padder is a public official, the odds are even better that he will be caught in a lie. Just ask Richard Bluementhal, the U.S. Senate candidate who wrongly claimed to have served in Vietnam -- and was outed by the New York Times.

-- Michael McGough


Comments () | Archives (8)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Doug Sterner

"A more practical objection to the law is that, thanks to the Internet, it is easy to find out if someone is 'stealing honor'."
Other than the fewer than 3,500 men and one woman who have received the Medal of Honor, there is no way to vette any of the other nearly 8 million medals awarded in history.
CHALLENGE to your assertion: Only about 130,000 Silver Stars have been awarded in history and it is our 3d highest award for valor. Using the INTERNET (or any other resources), can you tell me if Joseph A. Bresnan, USCG, was awarded the Silver Star. And that is just one case example.

Tom Lane

"Using the INTERNET (or any other resources), can you tell me if Joseph A. Bresnan, USCG, was awarded the Silver Star. And that is just one case example."

Took about 10 seconds, including typing the name-- Commander Bresnan was awarded the Silver Star for supervising the beach landings on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Dai Uy

Try pretending to be a law enforcement officer, or a gynecologist offering free breast and pelvic exams... It's not considered just offensive, it's criminal.

Andrew MacEwen

Lying about military valor, as loathsome as it is, should not be a crime in itself. On the other hand, it is patently obvious that a lie used for the purposes of fraud is not protected by the First Amendment. What this article dishonestly leaves out is that there was a case, now dropped, in which a man did exactly that. Rather than striking down the law, it should have been revised for purposes of clarity. Particularly dishonest is Blackburn's bizarre misrepresentation of his opposition: no one believes that service men and women are motivated by the prospect of medals; rather, they believe (rightly) that those who have legitimate medals are insulted by those who lie about it.

Lastly, the comparison to those who pose as police officers is not valid. No one can be prosecuted merely for lying about _being_ a police officer. It is _posing_ as one that is the crime. That goes beyond speech into the realm of potentially dangerous action.

Doug Sterner

Mr. Lane. Is that an erroneous report? You'll see many internet reports that Captain Kangaroo and Lee Marvin got Navy Crosses. They did NOT. And, Bresnan's award is in question in many places (reason I picked it)...appears to have been actually a BRONZE STAR erroneously reported as a Silver Star. You can not trust Internet to vette any claims to military awards.


george costanza should be locked away for a long, long time...


M Glenn

I find this article to be almost as offensive as the DISHONORABLE Robert Blackburn's initial ruling.

And really-- when does anyone claim to be veteran if you're not one, or claim medals you haven't earned, without the DELIBERATE INTENT to represent yourself as someone that you are not, claiming honors and respect that do NOT belong to you, and exploiting the favorable view of real veterans to gain improved social standing (at the very least); and in general, demeaning those who have earned those honors by your behavior. It DOES harm veterans when scumbags make these false claims, get away with it (sometimes for many years)-- and then finally get caught, and get away with it-- if nothing else, it leaves all real veterans being questioned about their achievements because there have been so many fakes over the years.

If this is the country I stood ready to defend for all the years that I was serving in the military-- a nation of gutless cowards who expect the "few and the proud" to defend them when they won't stand up to defend themselves, and then says it's okay to claim honors and demean the men and women who have been defending you by so doing-- I'm sorry I wasted as many years of my life in the US Army as I did. Those of you who support this decision? you can all go to hell....

Jon Healey

@M Glenn -- The issue here isn't whether people have a right to lie about their military service. They don't, and there's plenty of consequences (legal and otherwise) for those who do. The issue is whether to create a new statute to prosecute that specific type of lying. That's the First Amendment problem.

@Andrew -- Whether one can be prosecuted for any type of lie depends on the circumstances. Merely saying something that's not true (e.g., "I'm a cop") isn't unlawful in this country unless there are criminal or civil consequences, such as fraud. If I lie about being a police officer (or a decorated veteran) to persuade you to rent an apartment to me, I suspect that's grounds for you to void my lease.



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