The Supreme Court shouldn't make resume-padding a crime
Wednesday was a bad day for liars at the Supreme Court. Even liberal justices seemed unsympathetic to a Pomona man who was prosecuted under a law known as the Stolen Valor Act for boasting at a public meeting that he had received the Medal of Honor. (That wasn't his only whopper. He also claimed to have played professional hockey and to have been injured while rescuing a U.S. diplomat during the Iran hostage crisis.)
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law. One judge drolly argued that 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. Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic' and 'I didn't inhale' could all be made into crimes."
Members of the Supreme Court weren't about to salute that parade of horribles. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the U.S. solicitor general if the government also could punish people who lied about attaining a high school diploma, but Roberts didn't seem to find the idea all that objectionable. Even more revealing of Roberts' attitude was a question he posed to the lawyer for Xavier Alvarez, the Medal of Honor wannabe: "What is the 1st Amendment value in a lie, pure lie?"
The lawyer fumbled at first but later re-framed the issue in what I think is a persuasive way: "Our founders believed that Congress as a general principle doesn't get to tell us what we as individuals can and cannot say." Obviously there are exceptions: If Alvarez had lied about his military record to obtain money, he would have been guilty of the eminently prosecutable crime of fraud. But in itself a pathetic claim to military glory -- a claim easily debunked by a visit to the Internet -- isn't the sort of statement a free society should criminalize.
-- Michael McGough
Photo: Xavier Alvarez. Credit: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin