Attention, phony war heroes: Dust off those surplus uniforms and shine up those medals awarded by eBay. U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn has ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is an unconstitutional abridgment of your free-speech rights to deceive the public and dishonor those who actually did the heroic acts that you can only dream of doing.
Judge Blackburn, in a case before the District of Colorado over faux Marine Rick Glen Strandlof, ruled that the government lacked a compelling interest in abridging speech rights when it came to warrior impersonators. This is no G.I. Joke.
The Stolen Valor Act made it a misdemeanor for people to falsely claim “verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” Congress thought the law was necessary because “fraudulent claims surrounding receipt of the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force Cross, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart, or any other medal or decoration awarded by Congress or the Armed Forces damage the reputation and meaning of these medals.”
Counterfeiting is an apt analogy. The counterfeiter turns paper into wealth he did not earn, and in so doing dilutes the value of legitimate currency possessed by others. Service medals are akin to currency, but they are backed by blood, sweat and sacrifice. They are a form of recognition that has value because of the official regulations and honored traditions that govern the awards. Those who have earned the right to wear them, possess them or even say they were awarded them have acquired a tangible asset in the form of the respect bestowed on them by the public. Most recipients of military medals don’t seek them, and many are unassuming about their awards after the fact. But the phonies seek only to profit from claiming to be among the ranks of these heroes. They impersonate specifically to seek gain in the same way the counterfeiter seeks to profit from making phony bills.
Fraudulent heroes devalue military medals in two ways. By making awards seem more common, they become less rare and seem more ordinary. If every veteran - or rather, imposter - claimed to have been awarded the Silver Star, the award would soon inspire the same awe and admiration as a Girl Scout Brownie’s merit badge for basket-weaving. And when fakers are exposed, the disappointed public then looks with suspicion on genuine heroes. The phonies break the bonds of trust established by those who earned it. Heroes unjustly lose their repute; the public unfairly loses the opportunity to have heroes to emulate. In this way, the fakers assault the integrity of the military awards system itself.
It is in the government’s compelling interest to defend the system established by Congress to render these official honors. The issue is not whether all lying should be made illegal; lying, with some notable exceptions, is protected speech under the Constitution. Acknowledging a special interest in safeguarding the military awards system is no more a slippery slope than the laws governing perjury, libel, slander and criminal fraud. If the government has an interest in recognizing valor at all, it also has an interest in seeing to it that valor is not cheapened.
A Purple Heart medal can be purchased online for less than $35. Compare that to the price paid by warriors who survived enemy attacks or who face a lifetime of disability from their wounds - or those who never make it back home. No matter what some confused judge thinks, honoring genuine heroism and sacrifice for America is a compelling interest.
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'Your papers, please' must never be heard in America