What kind of person says he received the Medal of Honor, or any other military medal, when he hasn't? There's got to be a pathetic emptiness in his life for him to do such a thing. How would a real recipient of the medal feel about the fraud? Our guess is that he — or she — would feel more pity than anger.
Congress being Congress, it passed the Stolen Valor Act back in 2006. The act made it a crime to lie about receiving military medals. You know ethics are lacking in a society when laws have to take their place, and penalties are enacted in place of the kind of shame that such pathetic cases should feel.
Congress can make it a crime to lie? In that case, just imagine the indictments that could be filed against some of those who've filled congressional seats over the years. Happily, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the futility — and blatant unconstitutionality — of such laws. The justices realized that this Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment, that the right to free speech includes having a few beers at the VFW and telling all the folks gathered around the bar how you fended off the Taliban in Vietnam (or was the Viet Cong in Afghanistan?) with only a Bowie knife, saving a herd of nuns in the process. In short, there is no liberty without license, no guarantee of free speech without opening the door to its abuse.
Not all speech, including lies, can be protected by the First Amendment. You may not yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater unless there really is a fire. You may not use inside information to buy or sell stocks. And you may not tell folks you'll send them a million dollars posthaste from Nigeria if they'll just supply their bank account information.
The key to deciding whether Congress can limit this kind of speech is whether it's part of a fraud. And fraud is punishable by law, thank goodness. Or as The Hon. Anthony Kennedy put it in his majority decision declaring the Stolen Valor Act I unconstitutional:
"The statute seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings. And it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain."
Makes sense. So now our Congress decided to make it illegal to benefit from telling lies about one's military decorations. On Sept. 13, the U.S. House passed legislation that would make it a crime "to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit" by lying about military medals.
Here is Tim Griffin, a congressman from Arkansas, who helped push through the legislation: "Protecting the integrity and valor of American service members who have distinguished themselves in defense of this nation is critically important. ... We must ensure that the Medal of Honor and other military awards are protected from fraud."
Even those speaking for the ACLU say this law might pass constitutional muster. And it does feel even more unseemly — if it can get more unseemly — to make money from false claims of honor.
Lying is one thing, fraud quite another.
Just a couple of questions: Aren't there already laws against fraud? Why a separate law singling out just this one? Because it makes the rest of us feel righteous — as if we'd actually accomplished something -- even though there are already enough laws on the books?
It doesn't always take an act of Congress to right a wrong. After the Supreme Court made its ruling in June, the military made some noise about setting up a database of award winners, and putting it on the Internet for all to see.
Such a website, run by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, now exists at: www.cmohs.org. There you'll find a list of all those who received the nation's highest military honor, in what conflict, and in which branch they served. Those who have received the award are listed alphabetically, or you can search for a specific name.
All of which, if you're really interested, would come in handy next time somebody at the bar is trying to impress the waitress with his fictionalized military exploits. Suggest, loudly, that somebody look up the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's website on the closest smartphone. Then watch the creep excuse himself.