Should Lying About Military Service Be A Crime?

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When does bragging become illegal?

Federal courts in California and Colorado will soon hear two cases that struggle with the question of whether lying about military service is a criminal offence. 

In California, Xavier Alvarez said during a public meeting that he received the Medal of honour for his time in the Marines. Alvarez never served in the military and pleaded guilty to misrepresenting himself on the condition that he could appeal on the basis of the First Amendment.

In Colorado, Rick Strandlof said he was a former Marine with a Purple Heart and Silver Star, claims which he used when establishing a non-profit organisation to help homeless veterans (he was posing as “Rick Duncan,” according to The Denver Post). He was charged with five misdemeanours.

The crimes of both men are punishable via the the Stolen Valor Act, which established in 2006 that lying about earning an American military medal is a crime and could carry a punishment of up to a year in jail. The law forbids anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.

AP via Washington Post: Dozens of people have been arrested under the law at a time when troops coming home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been embraced as heroes. Almost all of the impostors were ordered to perform community service.

While the First Amendment does not protect lewd, libelous or imminently dangerous speech, does this mean it protects lies about military service as long as those lies do not hurt another person?

George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley told the AP, “Half the pickup lines in bars across the country could be criminalized under that concept.”

But, military historian Doug Sterner countered that the Stolen Valor Act “speaks to the intent of the framers…George Washington saw this kind of lie outside the scope of this freedom-of-speech issue.”

Read more at The Washington Post and the ABA Journal.

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