Stolen valor

Especially at a time when the United States is fighting two wars, valor in battle is venerated by citizens, even those who may disagree with the policies that put our warriors in harm’s way. So it’s particularly despicable for political candidates or others to lie about having received military honors. But the proper response to such repellent resume padding is exposure, scorn and, where politicians are concerned, rejection at the ballot box -- not arrest and imprisonment.

Congress apparently disagrees, and in 2006 passed the Stolen Valor Act, which expanded a previous law against fraudulently wearing a service medal to include falsely representing that one had received that honor. Violators can be fined or jailed for up to six months. Now two men -- one from California -- are challenging the constitutionality of the act. The federal courts should rule in their favor, not because their misrepresentation is innocuous -- it’s not -- but because criminalizing lies that aren’t part of a fraud would open a loophole in the 1st Amendment’s protection of free speech.

The Californian is Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, who, after being elected to a water district board, boasted at a public meeting that he had received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military distinction. Alvarez pleaded guilty and was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital, but he reserved the right to appeal on 1st Amendment grounds. Also challenging the law is a Colorado man who claimed to have been wounded in Iraq and received the Purple Heart and Silver Star.

Defenders of the law cite George Washington, who, in reference to the Purple Heart, warned: “Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.” But Washington couldn’t have anticipated the ease with which such impersonations by candidates or others are exposed by recourse to the Internet.

The stronger argument against this law is that it would criminalize speech that, although admittedly offensive, is far removed from the kind of serious crime -- such as extortion, fraud or incitement to riot -- in which speech merges into harmful conduct and may therefore be outlawed. And if Congress can make it a crime to lie about or exaggerate one’s military record, why wouldn’t it be constitutional to criminalize misrepresentation about educational attainments or the circumstances of one’s birth?

Anyone who fakes a distinguished military record shames himself, not those who have come by the honor honestly. The contempt of one’s fellow citizens is a form of punishment more damning than a fine or a few months in prison.