Xavier Alvarez now says he was lying and wishes he hadn’t done it, but he insists he never committed a crime. In July 2007, speaking at a podium as an elected official at a water board meeting in Los Angeles, Alvarez said he was a Marine, had been wounded, and had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for valor. He had made similar claims in conversations with co-workers.
The claims are untrue. Alvarez was never in the armed forces. But should lying about military service be considered a crime, to be punishable by a fine or even a jail sentence?
Alvarez’s detractors thought so. He was tried and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it a crime to falsely represent oneself as having been awarded “any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States.”
Alvarez was sentenced to a $10,000 fine and a prison term for up to one year. But the 9th Circuit Court in Northern California ruled the Stolen Valor Act infringed on Alvarez’s Constitutional freedom of speech. The federal government appealed.
On February 27, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against Alvarez, who insists that the free-speech provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution protects his right to lie. The court is expected to rule in June on whether the portion of the Stolen Valor Act that pertains to speech is Constitutional. The ruling won’t affect other sections of the Act that pertain to wearing unearned decorations – something Alvarez did not do.
In fact, with phony war heroes being exposed almost every day, Alvarez’s indiscretions seem mild compared to others. A sampling:
- A district judge in Illinois displayed two Medals of Honor in a frame on the wall of his courtroom. He led lawyers, press and public to believe that he had earned two awards of the nation’s highest decoration, something that hasn’t happened in real life since 1918. The judge’s falsehood was discovered when he applied for Medal of Honor license plates in his state.
- An airport security screener in Texas wore a Navy Cross, obtained American Legion license plates, and claimed to have been wounded in Vietnam. He convinced his employer (the U.S. government) and the local department of motor vehicles (his state government). But he had never been in uniform and officials learned of his frauds when a regional American Legion commander raised questions about him.
- An unemployed man in Ohio claimed to be a retired Air Force colonel and fighter pilot who had fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He accepted an invitation from a veterans’ group to be their dinner speaker. When another veteran became suspicious, it was learned that the man had served briefly in the Army as a private and had never been overseas.
Every one of these transgressions is a slap in the face to those who served and sacrificed. In the Alvarez case, even Alvarez’s attorneys say that he is a scoundrel and a jerk – arguments they use in his defense.
But is this criminal activity?
Is a fib a felony?
“This is a national epidemic,” said former Army Sgt. C. Douglas Sterner, who maintains a website about military valor (www.homeofheroes.com). “It’s a shame that when young men and women lose limbs and are awarded only with the Purple heart that the bogus people are wearing Purple Hearts and passing themselves off as heroes.”
In the book Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor, Theophilus Rodenbough quotes Gen. George Washington in his order that created the Badge for Military Merit in 1782:
“Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them,” Washington said, “they shall be severely punished.”
“Instead of being protected by free speech, these liars and thieves should be exposed and pursued with legal ferocity,” said Eric Benken, who was chief master sergeant of the Air Force from 1996 to 1999. ” These miscreants trample the honor of men and women who have bravely given their lives for this nation.”
“Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying,” wrote chief judge Alex Kozinski, the appeals judge who agreed with Alvarez that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. “Without the robust protections of the First Amendment, the white lies, exaggerations and deceptions that are an integral part of human intercourse would become targets of censorship” and enable the government to act as “truth police.”
Some critics wonder if the Stolen Valor Act amounts to “too much government.”
No matter how the Supreme Court rules, most provisions of the Stolen Valor Act and all previous laws covering medals will still apply.
It will still be illegal to buy, sell or trade medals. This is a crushing blow to historians and hobbyists who exchange and collect militaria – in effect, wiping out an entire hobby industry. Even a real-life recipient of the Medal of Honor cannot elect to sell his own medal.
It will still be illegal to wear and display medals that were not earned. It will still be illegal to impersonate any government official, including a military officer.
The Supreme Court case is about speech only.
Most observers believe the Supreme Court will strike down the provision within the Stolen Valor Act that penalizes speech. Alvarez will win his case and phony war heroes will retain a Constitutional right to lie.
But there can be no happy outcome because there is nothing pleasant about any part of this debate. It is almost obscene that phony war heroes, some of whom may need medical help, derive pleasure from describing heroic acts they never performed. But it is equally annoying, if not more so, that other Americans, some of them real war heroes, derive so much pleasure from exposing the fakes.
The tragedy underlying all this is that the nation has so many other problems to contemplate, all of which are more important.