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Supreme Court ruling on false military medals incites anger

June 28, 2012 | 11:12 am

A military aid holds the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House in May.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Thursday striking down the Stolen Valor Act generated swift reaction.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court ruling and suggested that Congress will look for another way to deter people from claiming to have won military medals for bravery.

“Even though I and others may not like the decision, the 1st Amendment is broad and encompassing, and gives people the freedom to embarrass themselves,” Hunter said. “Anyone who feels the need to impersonate a military hero for personal gain should be ashamed.

“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."

Michael Neil, a retired Marine brigadier general and recipient of the Navy Cross for bravery in Vietnam, was also disappointed in the high court ruling.

“Where do we stop people from lying?” said Neil, a San Diego attorney. “You can’t impersonate a military officer or police officer. Why should we allow someone to impersonate someone whose bravery and heroism is far beyond what you could expect from the average citizen?”

Phonies degrade the honor of legitimate recipients, he said. “When we have these kind of people, it discredits the medal and brings everybody under suspicion. I’m deeply offended by them.”

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

By a 6-3 decision, the high court said the right to lie about medals and military service, while "contemptible" and worthy of outrage and ridicule, is protected by the 1st Amendment.

To allow the government to outlaw certain speech because it is based on false statements would invite a Ministry of Truth as written about by George Orwell in his novel "1984" about totalitarianism, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said.

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 had claimed he was a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor; in fact, he had never served in the military. After being charged, he resigned from the board.

Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said Alvarez's lies "were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. 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, a resident of Pomona, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years' probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. His attorneys appealed; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his appeal, and the Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction.

Defending the law, government lawyers argued that lies about military medals are "false statements [that] have no value and hence no 1st Amendment protection."

The majority disagreed, saying that there is no proof that lying about medals degrades the value and honor of those who have actually earned those medals.

The law was passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush. It called for a possible one-year prison term.

Voting in favor of striking down the law were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.


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Photo: A military aid holds the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House in May. Credit: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press