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Legislators seek alternative to Stolen Valor Act after ruling

Xavier AlvarezThis post has been updated. See below for details.

In the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision that struck down the federal Stolen Valor Act, some legislators said they would explore other ways to deter people from lying about having received medals for bravery.

In a 6-3 decision Thursday, the high court said lying about medals and military service, while "contemptible" and worthy of public outrage and ridicule, is protected by the 1st Amendment.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed disappointment in the high court ruling.

"There might well be some legislative options here and that's something we'll be taking a closer look at, because our military men and women contribute and sacrifice too much for others to try taking the credit," Hunter said.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nevada) vowed to sponsor legislation making it a crime to seek a benefit by lying about military service. "As a colonel in the Army Reserve, I feel strongly about protecting the honor of our servicemen and women," he said.

In its decision, the high court indicated that a more narrowly drawn law, making it a crime to seek money or other considerations by claiming to have military medals, might past constitutional muster. Heck said he believes his legislation would fit that definition.

Michael Neil, a retired Marine brigadier general and recipient of the Navy Cross for bravery in Vietnam, said lying about receiving a medal should be considered the same as impersonating a police officer, which is a crime.

"Why should we allow someone to impersonate someone whose bravery and heroism is far beyond what you could expect from the average citizen?" said Neil, a lawyer in San Diego.

Neil said he recently encountered someone claiming to be a Navy Cross recipient. He said he quickly realized the man was lying. "I gave him two seconds to get out of the room," he said.

The Supreme Court, however, had its own take. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the 1st Amendment "protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace."

The decision came in the case of Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in eastern Los Angeles County.

At his first meeting, Alvarez said he was a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor; in fact, he had never served in the military. After being charged under the Stolen Valor Act, he resigned from the board.

Alvarez's lies "were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him," Kennedy said. "The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the medal."

Alvarez pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act and was sentenced to three years' probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. His attorneys appealed; the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the appeal, and the Justice Department petitioned the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction.

[Updated: June 29, 7:58 a.m.: Kevin Ainsworth, a New York lawyer and former Marine who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, said veterans are feeling “disbelief and outrage that people who make these false claims are somehow protected by the constitution. I just cannot comprehend people who do that.”

But the ACLU applauded the decision as restraining the government from trying to limit free speech.

"Perfectly respectable people sometimes lie to protect their privacy, avoid hurt feelings, make others feel better, duck minor obligations, or protect themselves and others from prejudice,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “If the court had endorsed the government’s sweeping argument, the government could regulate all of these false statements, and even criminalize them."]

ALSO:

Santa Fe Springs official took bribes while lying to FBI

Credit card numbers stolen from people buying food at USC

Sex offender convicted in assault of 17-year-old girl in O.C.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego and Matt Stevens in Los Angeles

Photo: After Xavier Alvarez falsely said he was a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor, he was convicted under the Stolen Valor Act. His case was appealed and brought to the Supreme Court. Credit: Therese Tran / Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

 
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