The Stolen Valor Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a week ago, went a very long way to avoid a quarrel with the First Amendment.
It didn’t threaten just anyone who falsely claimed military honors. If there was any way a claim of combat distinction could be theoretically argued, the law didn’t apply. It didn’t apply even to the vast majority of false claims of heroism.
Under the 2005 law, you could still lie about being a military veteran. You could lie about being a brave veteran.
You could lie about fighting in Vietnam even if you were 3 years old at the time. You could lie about fighting fearlessly in the Battle of Khe Sanh, lie about saving lives there, lie about routing the Viet Cong single-handedly. You could lie about being gravely wounded yet giving up your place on the helicopter so that your buddies could be evacuated instead.
You could lie about being tortured as a prisoner of war and refusing to give in. You could lie extravagantly enough to get free drinks from everyone in sight for the rest of your life.
The single thing you could not do is lie about receiving the Medal of Honor or other specific military decoration if a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had not received one and knowingly claimed you did.
It had to be a lie refuted by objective, bright-line proof – a lie comparable to advertising a Fountain of Youth Cream that supposedly turns 70-year-olds into 20-year-olds, complete with magical birth certificates. The law was so narrow, so based on matters of unambiguous record, that it left no room to single out unpopular opinions or criticism of government.
Supporters of the Stolen Valor Act – including us – noted that other forms of injurious and valueless expression had been denied the protection of the First Amendment. The law can penalize perjury, fraud, false advertising, lying to police officers, pretending to be a police officer. It can even forbid collection agencies from using the word “federal” to imply a connection to the government.
As in those cases, fraudulent claims of military decorations can hurt people. Those who falsely boast medals can edge out rival job-seekers and candidates for office. They can win contracts and benefits they otherwise wouldn’t have won.
They also devalue the currency of the medals themselves. When false claims are epidemic – as they are – it casts some doubt on the decorations genuine combat veterans earned at the risk of their lives.
In the end, the court gave the benefit of the doubt to the First Amendment; there are worse reasons to botch a ruling.
The best alternative now is a public, federally certified database that would let citizens easily check out the claims of suspected impostors. The Pentagon has been laggard in creating one, citing spurious obstacles. That’s inexcusable. Double time, march.