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Bills aim to retrieve Stolen Valor Act
Changes address free speech
Just two weeks after the Supreme Court struck down a law making it a crime to lie about one’s military service, members of both houses of Congress are trying to pass similar legislation, with a few minor additions to address the court’s free-speech concerns.
In a news conference this week, Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, and Rep. Joe Heck, Nevada Republican, pleaded with leadership to protect the honor and integrity of U.S. military honors by passing their amended version of the Stolen Valor Act.
Lawmakers are responding to the June 28 ruling in United States v. Alvarez, which struck down the 2006 law as a violation of the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees by narrowing the focus of their bills.
Instead of prosecuting every individual who lies about their military service, Mr. Brown and Mr. Heck’s bill would only go after those who profit or benefit from the lie. Congress has far more power to regulate commercial speech than other forms of speech. Punishment for violating the law would range from a fine to a year in prison.
“It is wrong and cowardly for people to make fraudulent statements in order to receive distinctions that they have not earned,” Mr. Brown said. “We need to ensure that no one can benefit from making false claims and steal the true valor of the courageous servicemen and women who selflessly defended our freedom.”
Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, said this week he would introduce his own legislation called the Military Service Integrity Act of 2012.
Mr. Webb’s legislation largely resembles the Brown-Heck bill, except that misrepresenting military service would be punishable by no more than six months in jail. The legislation also would make it a crime to replicate or sell U.S. military decorations or medals authorized by Congress.
“Profiting from the misrepresentation of military service or the award of a decoration or medal for personal gain undermines the value of service and is offensive to all who have stepped forward to serve our country in uniform,” Mr. Webb said.
Mr. Heck agreed and said, “I believe that we must defend the valor of those who have served our country, but also that we must protect the very liberties for which our servicemen and women sacrificed. [The bill] would achieve both objectives, and Congress should move quickly to pass this legislation.”
The Pentagon also is working to address the problem by creating a searchable database of every military honor bestowed going as far back as feasible, though the task could be difficult because millions of files were lost in a 1973 fire at a St. Louis military warehouse.
“We would obviously hope to be able to go as far back as possible, but we also want there to be integrity in the data. So these are factors that are being weighed, and we’re in the process of exploring those options. So the door is open,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The Brown-Heck bill has been referred to committees in the two men’s respective chambers, but Mr. Webb said he may skip the committee process and offer an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, scheduled to be voted on before the August recess.
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