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The Wasatch Behind: Court approved stolen valor

By TOM MCCOURT
Sun Advocate Columnist

In his book, Stolen Valor, author B.G. Burkett exposes millions of liars among us. For instance, according to military records, 2,710,276 Americans served in uniform in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975. But during the 2000 census, 13,853,027 men claimed to have served in Vietnam during the war. That number is shocking, especially since only 9,087,000 men served in all branches of the military during the Vietnam era. This means that four of every five men who tell you they served in Vietnam are lying to you, and about a third of the liars never served in the military at all. Incredible!

It has become a real problem. A lot of younger men are enhancing their resumes with false claims of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is fashionable now to be a veteran. People treat veterans with respect and there are perks for those who serve in the armed forces. The federal government and most states allow preference for military service when a person applies for a job. Military service counts towards most government pensions, and veterans qualify for special educational and medical benefits.

Often, employers, schools, social service providers and even most veteran's organizations don't ask for proof of service. Why would a man lie about something like that?

But they do. Politicians especially, are prone to tag themselves with make-believe military honors to impress the voters. We have had several such scandals recently. The problem has gotten so bad that Congress passed legislation making false claims of military service and military honors a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. The legislation was called The Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

Unfortunately, in August the Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The judges ruled that punishing a person for lying violates his constitutional right of free speech.

What?

The case before the judges was an appeal by Xavier Alvarez who falsely claimed to be both a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient to help win a seat on a local water board. He was convicted by a lower court and appealed to the Ninth District Court where the judges overturned the ruling.

The judges wrote in their opinion: "The right to speak and write whatever one chooses - including to some degree, worthless, offensive and demonstrable untruths - without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment." The judges also said that there is no evidence that such lies harm anybody, and there's no compelling reason for the government to ban such lies. Again - incredible!

"No evidence that such lies harm anybody?" Let me count the ways. First, Mr. Alvarez was elected by false pretense. Because of what he said, people believed he was a man of honor. They voted for him on that information. What they got was a liar, a cheat and everyone was harmed.

Second, this ruling opens Pandora's Box. When the federal courts say it's okay to lie, where do we draw the line? Can we ever again believe what someone says in a resume, a credit application or a job interview? What about TV commercials and the selling of used cars? What about testimony in a court of law? Does free speech trump perjury now?

Third, when someone can openly wear military insignia and decorations they were never authorized to wear, the value and significance of the badge is degraded. The people who worked, sacrificed, suffered, and often bled and died to legitimately earn that emblem of respect are robbed of the special honor of wearing and displaying it. It truly is a case of stolen valor.

We have always had liars and pretenders among us, but never before has such perfidy been sanctioned by the courts. This is another sign that our country is in deep legal and moral crisis.

But then, gee whiz, thanks to some federal judges, I can now run for public office and tell people I have a Ph.D. from Harvard, served as a Navy Seal, received the Medal of Honor and spent 20 years undercover with the FBI. On weekends I can dress up and tell people I'm a medical doctor, an army general or an ordained minister and no one can do anything about it because I have a right to free speech.

Is this a great country, or what?




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