By Fang A. Wong, American Legion National Commander
The Supreme Court has never held that intentional false statements of fact are worthy of constitutional protection. When the Stolen Valor Act case is decided later this year, the American Legion believes that the high court will recognize the harm caused to honorable veterans by fraudsters who lie about their military achievements.
Despite hyperbolic claims from opponents of the Stolen Valor Act, this legislation does not represent a slippery slope toward outlawing mere boasts in a tavern. This act recognizes congressional authority under the Constitution to safeguard and protect the reputation and meaning of military decorations and medals.
As the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted in a different Stolen Valor Act challenge, “The Supreme Court has observed time and again, false statements of fact do not enjoy constitutional protection, except to the extent necessary to protect more valuable speech. Under this principle, the Stolen Valor Act does not impinge on or chill protected speech, and therefore does not offend the First Amendment.”
The 10th Circuit recognized that the “intent to deceive” is implied in the Stolen Valor Act, which would mitigate against the fears of mass prosecutions against those who simply tell tall tales in the local watering hole. As that court stated, “only outright lies — not ideas, opinions, artistic statements, or unwitting misstatements of fact — are punishable under the act.”
There have always been limitations to free speech. For instance, the law properly recognizes prohibitions on deceptive advertising, fraud, impersonating a police officer, perjury and defamation. The Stolen Valor Act is no different than these existing limitations.
The awarding of decorations such as the Medal of Honor is not subject to the vagaries of interpretation or to unintentional misunderstandings. Military honors are recorded in official documentation provided to servicemembers at the time of separation from military service, and they are public records.
False claims of military heroism diminish the sacrifices of America’s true military heroes and allow imposters to reap undeserved benefits that should be reserved for those who earned them.
These medals bestow prestige on heroes who have fought, suffered and in many cases given their lives for the cause of freedom. Congress has concluded that falsely proclaiming to be a decorated veteran diminishes the value of military awards, and the court should uphold this act.