House approves new stolen valor bill
By: Stephanie Gaskell
September 13, 2012 05:22 PM EDT
Congress is a step closer to closing a loophole in a law struck down by the Supreme Court this summer that made it a crime to lie about being a military hero.
A revised Stolen Valor Act overwhelmingly passed the House on Thursday, 410-3. It would make it illegal for a person to benefit from lying about being awarded military medals, including the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that the legislation passed in 2006 was over-reaching and that lying about military service protected by the First Amendment.
The case was brought by lawyers for Xavier Alvarez, a California water district board official who claimed he had received the Medal of Honor. In fact, he had never even served in the military. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to three years of probation. His lawyers challenged the conviction, arguing that his lies were protected free speech and not criminal.
“Although there are many statutes and common-law doctrines making the utterance of certain kinds of false statements unlawful, they tend to be narrower than the [Stolen Valor] Act,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 6-3 decision. “The act lacks any such limiting features.”
“The act nonetheless has substantial justification,” Kennedy continued. “It seeks to protect the interests of those who have sacrificed their health and life for their country by seeking to preserve intact the country’s recognition of that sacrifice in the form of military honors. It may, however, be possible substantially to achieve the government’s objective in less burdensome ways.”
Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) heeded that advice and quickly introduced a more narrow version of the Stolen Valor Act, this time specifying that it be illegal not just to lie about military service, but to benefit from it.
“This is exactly what my legislation does,” said Heck, who is also a colonel in the Army Reserve. “The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 resolves these constitutional issues by clearly defining that the objective the law is to target and punish those who misrepresent their alleged service with the intent of profiting personally or financially.”
“Defining the intent helps ensure that this law will pass constitutional scrutiny while at the same time achieving its primary objective which is to preserve and protect the honor and integrity of military service and awards,” Heck said.The Senate version of the bill has stalled. Brown and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) told POLITICO they hope to reintroduce it in the Senate soon.
“Just as we recognize the extraordinary actions of our military heroes, we cannot allow thieves and fraudsters to profit by falsely claiming the distinctions our heroes have earned,” said Brown, a colonel in the Army National Guard. “I will continue working in a bipartisan way to see this bill through the Senate, and I am hopeful we will act quickly so that President [Barack] Obama can sign the new Stolen Valor Act into law as soon as possible.”