Veterans: Stolen Valor Act’s court loss just a lost battle in a long war
By Jason Cato and Brian Bowling
Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012, 11:02 a.m.Updated: Thursday, June 28, 2012
The U.S. Supreme Court may have dealt a blow to decorated veterans and to prosecutors looking to protect vets’ honor when it struck down the Stolen Valor Act on Thursday.
“I can’t believe they found it unconstitutional. What a shame,” said Dominic DeFranco, 74, of Peters who serves on the National Legislative Committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and is a past commissioner of the Pennsylvania VFW. “That freedom of speech is what we went out and fought for and died for. Where does it go from here?”
DeFranco, a retired Army sergeant and member of VFW Memorial Park Post 764 in Peters, said he plans to call the VFW steering committee in Washington today to see what can be done now.
“It’s not going to end,” DeFranco said.
The setback is just one lost battle in a long war, said Doug Sterner, a military historian in Alexandria, Va., who operates HomeOfHeroes.com, a website that tracks Medal of Honor recipients.
“If (yesterday) was Pearl Harbor, Midway is just around the corner and we will turn the tide,” Sterner said. “Hopefully, we will get a new Stolen Valor Act passed quickly.”
Bills in both the House and Senate can advance now that the court ruled that lying about military honors is protected speech under the First Amendment.
Like the 2005 act, the bills would make it a crime for someone to lie about his or her military honors. Unlike the stricken act, both would require that some form of fraud be committed for the lies to become punishable.
In setting out to protect the integrity of the Medal of Honor and other military awards, Congress took a step toward creating the Big Brother government of George Orwell’s novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
“The act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person …,” Kennedy wrote in the main opinion, joined by three other justices. “Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home.”
The act does not distinguish between people lying about military honors for some material gain and those simply lying.
“Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth,” Kennedy wrote. “Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the national government or the states could single out.”
The government has the ability to prosecute people who lie to commit a fraud, Kennedy wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito and two other justices said in the dissenting opinion that the 2005 act passed constitutional muster and said its closest parallel, in terms of harm, is found in trademark law in which a company can sue competitors who try to make their products look like the company’s products so they can mislead customers. In the same way, people who lie about military honors are trying to appropriate the respect that belongs to people who have earned those honors, Alito wrote.
“Surely it was reasonable for Congress to conclude that the goal of preserving the integrity of our country’s top military honors is at least as worthy as that of protecting the prestige associated with fancy watches and designer handbags,” Alito wrote.
About 60 people nationwide have been charged under the 2005 act, Sterner said. Most of those could have been charged under an older federal law that makes it a crime to wear U.S. military uniforms or insignia without authorization. That statute was used in two Western Pennsylvania cases in recent years.
The Supreme Court case involved a California man who became one of the first people prosecuted for violating the Stolen Valor Act, enacted in 2006. Pomona, Calif., water authority member Xavier Alvarez claimed at a public meeting that he was a wounded war veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. Neither was true.
Jason Cato and Brian Bowling are staff writers for Trib Total Media. They can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.