Burriss on Media: Stolen Valor

Mar 12, 2012

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.  --  One of the continuing questions about free speech asks, “Are lies a protected form of communication?” Within some narrow circumstances involving advertising and defamation, false statements are, in fact, protected.

But notice that false advertising and defamation can lead to direct, immediate harm. Other kinds of lying may be morally wrong, but their harm is generally negligible.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court is dealing with a law called the Stolen Valor Act, and is being asked if lying about military honors should be a criminal act, or protected speech.

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to claim you have received a military honor if you haven’t. The particular case before the court is about an official in a small California town who falsely claimed he had won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As a veteran, I can testify to the importance of military honors. And the “awards and decorations” as they are known, cover the whole spectrum of activities, from simply being alive, to very real heroism.

So, once again, the question is, “Who is directly and immediately harmed by lies about military awards?” The answer is, probably no one. Yes, lying about military awards is despicable, but is it harmful? In some cases, the answer is yes, but there are already laws that criminalize this kind of behavior, without limiting the First Amendment.

For example, fraud laws already make it a crime to lie about anything to gain an unfair advantage or for illegal financial gain. And these laws are effective without damaging free speech.

In addition, in several instances of stolen valor, the perpetrators have been publicly humiliated or lost their jobs. In one case a judge resigned rather than face possible criminal charges after he admitted he never received the Medal of Honor. In 1996, a Naval officer committed suicide after an investigation revealed he had lied about two Vietnam War combat awards.

Like flag burning, examples of stolen valor create passionate arguments. But protecting free speech, even lies, not suppressing offensive speech, is what the government should be doing.

I’m Larry Burriss.