Is lying about winning medals for military valor a crime?
On Friday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rick Strandlof of Colorado violated the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 federal law that makes it illegal to make false statements and claims about winning military medals. Strandlof, who was charged in 2009, claimed he won a Silver Star and a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Iraq while serving in the Marines. The military said it not only had no records of the medals being awarded, there were no records showing that Strandlof had served at all. Strandlof’s lawyers have admitted that their client fabricated the story.
The 10th Court ruling, a reversal of a U.S. District Court judge’s decision, is counter to a previous ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
When the law was passed by Congress in 2006, there was a great deal of public support. America was engaged in two wars, with more troubles appearing to be just over the horizon. Our sons and daughters were being kept from their families for extended periods, serving overseas in dangerous locations. From the invasion of Iraq to the current operations in Afghanistan, they have faced danger, suffered injuries and died for their nation.
That someone who never faced danger worse than a paper cut would try to claim ownership of medals that are awarded to those who have truly sacrificed and performed honorably in the defense of their nation is, in a word, despicable.
It is evidence of an utter lack of character, and anyone who would make such bogus claims deserves every criticism that comes his or her way.
But is it illegal?
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide that, not with Strandlof’s case, but with one from California. In that case, Xavier Alvarez, a member of a district water board from Pomona, Calif., was prosecuted for lying at a public meeting when he claimed he not only served in the Marines, but that he had won the Medal of Honor to boot. Like Strandlof, he never even served.
The problem is, the heart will tell you that these two people — and the handful of others who have been caught up in similar false claims — deserve to be charged with a crime. But the mind has to acknowledge that the First Amendment is designed to protect even speech that is disgusting and offensive — including the burning of the American flag — and is broad enough to include those who willfully and blatantly lie about their exploits.
The nation’s highest court will decide the issue of whether Strandlof, Alvarez and their ilk are criminals.
But in the court of public opinion, where many are rightfully incensed that these people would attempt to cheapen the value of these medals and the acts of our true heroes with their self-aggrandizing claims, they’re already convicted liars.
We’d suggest that they should be “sentenced” to go up to every one of the brave men and women who honorably served our country and offer an apology, but who’d believe them?