Commentary: Lying about military service is not protected speech

Xavier Alvarez, after being elected in 2007 to the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Pomona, introduced himself at his first board meeting as a wounded war veteran who had received the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest honor.

But when it was discovered that Alvarez was never wounded in action, never awarded the Medal of Honor, and never served in the military, he was prosecuted and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 of a federal misdemeanor for falsely claiming to have received a U.S. military medal.

Alvarez was sentenced to a $10,000 fine and a prison term for up to one year. But thanks to the 9th Circuit Court in Northern California, the most liberal in the country, he was freed when the court ruled the Stolen Valor Act infringed on Alvarez's Constitutional freedom of speech.

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to the prosecution's appeal to take up the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act.

Lying about being a war hero is not a new concept. George Santayana quipped, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there."

Unfortunately for Alvarez, thanks to the efforts of a real veteran named Doug Sterner and his wife, Pam, there is now a database of the nearly 100,000 military awards presented since the Civil War, including all 3,475 Medal of Honor recipients.

After the publishing of one of Pam Sterner's college term papers expressing her husband's frustrations over those who falsely claimed to be medal recipients was published, there was so much turmoil Congress saw fit to make lying about valor a crime.

The law imposes up to six months in prison for lying about any military medal, but allows a maximum penalty of $10,000 and one year in prison for offenses involving the Medal of Honor or one of the military's three other top decorations: the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross or the Air Force Cross.

The 9th Circuit based its ruling on the controversial Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), which invalidated 48 state prohibitions against desecrating the American flag.

Justice William Brennan wrote for a 5-4 majority that held defendant Gregory Lee Johnson's act of flag burning was protected speech under the 1st Amendment. Most Supreme Court scholars believe the liberal ideological majority of the Supreme Court has been reversed since the 1980s.

It will be interesting to see if that change includes respect for honesty and integrity.

CHRISS STREET is the former Orange County treasurer-tax collector and a Newport Beach resident.

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