Is lying about military medals or service a crime?
In 2005, Congress passed and the President signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005* into law. The Act prohibits the unauthorized wearing, manufacture or sale of any military medals and decorations. The Act makes it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal. If convicted, defendants may be imprisoned for up to six months, unless the decoration lied about is the Medal of Honor, in which case imprisonment could be up to one year.
The law was passed to prevent impostors from “stealing the valor” of soldiers returning from engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were a reported 200 alleged violations of the Act in 2009. But this leads to the question of one’s right to free speech. Is lying about your past a crime? Is the fabrication you brag about hurting anyone other than yourself once caught?
Xavier Alvarez was a 50-year old man in California. He was a member of a local water board and at a meeting in 2007, he introduced himself saying “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.” As it turns out, Alvarez never served in the military and didn’t receive the Medal of Honor. He was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years probation, 400 hours of community service to be completed at a Veteran’s hospital and a $5,000 fine. Alvarez appealed his case and in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision.
With a vote of six to three, the Court ruled that the Act was unconstitutional since it violates the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. The question before the Court was whether the government can prohibit speech simply because the speaker knows it is false. The Court recognized that certain categories of speech such as defamation or true threats are not protected by the First Amendment, but false statements alone do not present a grave or imminent threat. Criminal punishment for speech as Alvarez engaged in is improper.
In an attempt to bring back the Stolen Valor Act, the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. voted 390 to 3 in May, 2013 in favor of a new law. The bill now goes to the Senate and, if passed and signed by the President, it remains to be seen if it will pass the First Amendment test.
Update: On June 3, 2013, the president signed a new bill with more specificity. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a crime to lie about being decorated with the intent to profit from the lie.
*18 United States Code, Section 704