As the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of a California man accused of lying about his military service and record, it’s worth noting that lies and crimes aren’t necessarily the same thing.
No one should lie about military service. You either served or you didn’t. You either won medals or you didn’t.
Unfortunately, in the real world people do pretend to be things they aren’t or claim to have done things they haven’t. Resumes have been found to have been padded with everything from degrees that weren’t earned to jobs one didn’t do.
Usually, that’s no crime unless the lie itself is part of a crime. For instance, if a person lies to swindle someone, then that person is also a crook and should be punished accordingly. There are laws on the books to hold accountable those who commit fraud and defamation.
The California man whose case is being considered by the Supreme Court was an elected official in 2007 when he introduced himself as a retired Marine and a Medal of Honor winner. He’d not only never won the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, he’d never even served.
The man, Xavier Alvarez, was prosecuted under the federal Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law making it a crime to lie about receiving awards. Alvarez’ attorney, who acknowledges his client’s claims are offensive and wrong, nevertheless argues that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional and Alvarez’ statements are protected by the First Amendment. He told ABC News that the government is trying to “make a criminal out of a man who was proven to be nothing more than a liar, without more.”
Government prosecutors say the Stolen Valor Act is not an attack on free speech and is necessary to protect the military awards system. That’s well-intended, to be sure, but those who claim to have earned medals they haven’t aren’t a threat to the sanctity of military commendations.
In fact, service members who have won medals serve at least in part to help preserve an American way of life that includes free speech, even if it’s not always truthful or something we want to hear.
Yes, there may be instances where the Stolen Valor Act is needed to crack down on those who might use a false military background to commit a crime.
But public exposure of those who merely lie about their military record is punishment enough.