On February 22, a federal appeals court in San Francisco began to hear arguements in one of the first cases of prosecution under the Stolen Valor Act.
Originally posted Sept. 16, 2011
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
On Dec. 20, 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Stolen Valor Act. The act amended Title 18, United States Code, to enhance protections relating to the reputation and meaning of the Medal of Honor and other military decorations and awards.
It expanded the provisions of existing U.S. laws that addressed the unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of military decorations and medals, dating back to 1948. It also made it a federal misdemeanor for someone to falsely represent himself or herself as having received any U.S. military medal or decoration.
Provisions of Stolen Valor:
Enhanced penalty for offenses involving the Distinguished-Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, and Medal of Honor.
Made it illegal for unauthorized persons to wear, buy, sell, barter, trade, or manufacture “any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces.”
Made it illegal for anyone to falsely represent himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any military decoration or medal – punishable by fines or up to six months imprisonment, or both.
The law was upheld in Virginia and recently in North Carolina, when a 68-year-old man was sentenced to 16 months in prison for wearing the uniform of a decorated Marine colonel without authorization, making false statements to federal authorities and defrauding the Department of Veteran Affairs of more than $37,000 in disability payments.
The act however, has been challenged in Colorado and California, where a federal appeals court panel ruled the act unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.
In the Virginia case, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones ruled the Stolen Valor Act does not violate free speech and false statements are a recognized category of unprotected speech. His position is that the Stolen Valor Act applies to “outright lies” made knowingly with intent to deceive. Through his ruling, the judge stated “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact,” referring to a previous case involving defamation (Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
The most recent proposed amendment to the Act, however, prohibits the making of law that would abridge the freedom of speech.
From a service member’s perspective there is a significant distance between a citizen’s freedom of speech and misrepresenting whom they are by lying about service to our country – a service that those in the military hold in the highest regard.
In most cases, successful ‘Stolen Valor’ prosecutions were justified because an individual lied about military service and decorations to gain benefits of monetary value, which is fraud.
In the coming months, the potential exists for more stories of stolen valor arise, as some politicians and legislators encourage the Supreme Court to review and reverse the panel’s decision to restore the act.
If perjury is punishable in 17 states, and in many cases lying to police is also a chargeable offense, should lying about military service, awards or decorations receive constitutional protection?