Kentucky voices

John M. Shotwell: Lies about military honors not fibs; revise law to fight fraud

Lies about military honors not fibs; revise law to fight fraud

July 3, 2012 

The Medal of Honor

The Supreme Court's decision June 28 to uphold the health care act nearly overshadowed another court action on the same day. The court struck down the Stolen Valor Act which had made false claims about military service a crime.

Several months ago I wrote in this newspaper that the Supreme Court should uphold the law, not only to expose the fraud of people who lie about military service to leverage contrived military service for personal gain but also "for the higher purpose of venerating the courage and service of the millions of men and women who have earned the right to claim to be heroes."

My argument was based in part on my experience as a Marine Corps spokesman in exposing phony veterans running for political office on false assertions of military distinction.

Six of the nine justices bushwhacked the law, maintaining that constitutional protection of freedom of speech also safeguards the right to lie. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the decision, likened prosecution of military service fraud to "criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, or financial status on or Facebook."

Who knew? I suppose that if lying about accomplishments was illegal, most of our politicians would be imprisoned.

While the Stolen Valor Act is dead, I hope that Congress won't cremate it. Why not amend or revise the act to specifically address use of exaggerated military service claims to run for office or appointment to public service?

Under such a revised Stolen Valor law, a blowhard, protected by the First Amendment, could still brag about his counterfeit Silver Star Medal when the most prominent mark in his military record is a Bad Conduct Discharge. But if that same veteran used sham heroism as a bona fide to campaign for county coroner, he could be fined and/or jailed.

If Kennedy had doctored his résumé before his Supreme Court confirmation — say, instead of the cum laude law degree from Harvard, he was barely able to scrape together enough credits for a degree in sewage management from Lake Wobegon Community College — would Congress or the courts have likened his behavior to fudging his age or weight? I don't think so.

We treasure the right to express ourselves freely as a basic American liberty. We also elevate our elected and appointed officials to high levels of trust. At the very least, we should expect candor about their military service. Those candidates for public service who betray our trust by pretending to be military heroes should be punished.

Members of Congress and the judicial system don't seem to agree among themselves about much anymore. But I don't think many of them would believe the First Amendment should be exploited as a license to defraud citizens. They ought to find some consensus in devising a way to protect citizens from charlatans without endangering our constitutional right to express ourselves freely.

John M. Shotwell of Lexington is a retired colonel and a former director of U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs.

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