Friday, March 16, 2012

Is the Stolen Valor Act Worth Upholding?

On the one hand, there is the right to free speech. On the other, there is the matter of degrading the honor of distinguished military service. On February 22, the justices of the Supreme Court tossed back and forth the Stolen Valor Act, a law passed in 2006 that makes it a crime to lie about military medals, and after about an hour of discussion, deemed it worth upholding.
The deliberations had their roots in the questionable statements of Xavier Alvarez, who in 2007 was elected to the board of directors of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District. When he attended an open meeting, he declared, “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I’m still around.” None of which was true, since Alvarez never served in the military. The act states that it is a crime to make false statements about having, “been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States.” Alvarez claimed protection under the First Amendment, but then his case reached the Supreme Court.
Demonstrating that there must be a limit to everything, the justices acknowledged that the right to free speech does not include calculated falsehoods that cause at least some kinds of harm. And they agreed with each other that the government has a substantial interest in protecting the integrity of its system for honoring military distinction. Nevertheless, they paid careful consideration to the First Amendment, worrying about possible damage to free speech that a ruling upholding the act might cause. In the end, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy concluded that while we must not establish a “Ministry of Truth,” he also admitted of Alvarez’s dishonesty that “I have to acknowledge this does diminish the medal in many respects.”

from the Desk of Atty. Monica Risam Nicklin

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