The issue of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 deserves to rank on the emotional scale with
that of locating the Islamic Center near 9/11 Ground Zero. The conviction of a man who pled guilty of falsely claiming to have won the Medal of Honor was overturned recently, 2 to 3, by a panel of federal appeals judges who ruled 2 to 3 that it violated his rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
As Judge Mylan D. Smith wrote, if the courts upheld the law, “. . . then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time.”
Geoff Caldwell wrote an impassioned “guest column” about this in the Joplin Globe (8/22/2010). His conclusion was that the conviction of the perpetrator, a California
water district board member named Xavier Alvarez, should have been upheld on the grounds of common sense. On first reading, I agreed with Caldwell. The act was despicable. But whether such an act should be a felony is not a simple question.
As far as First Amendment rights of freedom of speech go, the issue of flag-burning comes to mind. I think it is similar and, so far, the right to burn the flag as a political protest or to say hateful or disgusting things has been “protected”. It may be for the best in the long run. Do we really want to have government in the role of Truth Police? If you prefer smaller government to larger, as I do, then perhaps not. My opinion on the role of government in enforcing “fairness” was expressed in “Fairness and Resentment”.
In thinking about the subject I am reminded of how the internet has compounded the problem of plagiarism in academia: term papers and exams. And what about resume′s? How many of those are free of lies? I suggest that human nature isn’t what has changed, it is access to temptation. Everybody lies sometime. Some are white lies, perhaps merely to spare someone else a difficult truth, and others the kinds cited by Judge Smith. Caveat emptor.
Politicians certainly lie.
I’m sure we are all aware of Governor Marc Sandford’s lies regarding his South American
mistress, but the South Carolina legislature seems to have forgiven him. Examples abound. Rod Blagojevich, now convicted of lying (under oath) to the FBI. Erstwhile NY Governor Elliot Spitzer, former doyen of crime-fighting who had to resign in disgrace after sampling some of the forbidden wares he was supposed to be fighting. And speaking of
governmental lying, consider how the CIA convinced even the author of the Powell Doctrine that Iraqi WMD’s actually existed. Then there was this by Richard M. Nixon:
“I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue.”
If we have the problem at these levels, how many lower-placed criminals would we have to round up? And what will their trials cost? Think there’s a shortage of public defenders now?
I found a very thoughtful and philosophical discussion of the issue on a blog by one RonPo1. It is titled, “Does the First Amendment Give Us The Right To Lie?” The discussion that follows the post is a worthy read as well, IMO.
Legislation requiring an official database for military medals has been introduced in Congress several times, currently as H. R. 666. I would be personally satisfied if it only contained the information regarding distinguished service medals and above, but it calls for information on all medals. But, given the complexity of military records and the vast amount of paper involved I rather doubt that it is practical to do this. We had enough trouble just getting the names on the Viet Nam War Memorial right.
I believe that Xavier Alvarez deserves social ostracism and contempt for his disgusting and self-serving behavior (he is currently serving 5 years in prison for a different transgression), but I do not think what he did should be made a felony, any more than should flag-burning. We don’t need Truth Police, we just need the free press, and the blogosphere. But perhaps we should have a national data base, with addresses, for those of Alvarez’s ilk who falsely pretend to have been awarded medals for valor and have been found out. After all, we have similar databases for convicted sex offenders. A list of false heroes would be a hell of lot shorter, I trust, than one naming those who earned the medals. At least I certainly hope so.
I leave you with this quote:
“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky