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Ninth Circuit Overturns Stolen Valor Law


Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace
A federal law, known as the Stolen Valor Act, made it a crime to claim that you received military medals that you did not actually earn. It almost immediately came under attack as being in conflict with the First Amendment. One of the main legal issues is:  To what extent does the First Amendment protect false statements of fact?

In 2012, in United States v. Alvarez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that most of the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional. In that case, a local politician in California announced, after he had been elected, that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving as a United States Marine. In reality, he had never served in our nation’s armed forces.

The Supreme Court stated that the federal law was not necessary to protect the military’s system of awarding medals and that this was different than someone making a false claim to receive some type of veterans’ benefit. The justices that dissented believed that false statements about military medals deserved no First Amendment protection and that these types of statements were different than a debate on military policy, which would receive Constitutional protection. 

The Ninth Circuit recently looked at these issues again. In that case, a Korean War veteran, over 40 years after his honorable discharge, filed a claim for service connected PTSD with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He submitted an altered discharged form in support of his claims. There was also a photograph of him in uniform wearing various medals that he never received, including a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. In addition to being convicted of charges in connection with the false claims, he was also convicted of wearing unauthorized military medals in violation of the Stolen Valor Act. 

On January 11, 2016, the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction for the charge concerning the Stolen Valor Act. In doing so, it held that wearing medals that you did not earn is a type of symbolic speech that cannot be made illegal due to the protections of the First Amendment.     

The Ninth Circuit held that wearing unearned medals is a form of speech that is intended to communicate an idea, similar to wearing a black arm band. The Ninth Circuit went on to write that wearing an unauthorized medal is a type of speech because wearing an authorized medal is a type of speech. 

My view, perhaps not surprisingly, is different. The Stolen Valor Act addresses a unique type of deception that is intentionally done for personal gain. It is not a type of discussion that inevitably occurs in free debate. 

There is a difference between speech and conduct. This is true even when the conduct may be done with an intent to communicate. In addition, free speech is not absolute. For example, someone cannot slander someone and successfully claim that they had a First Amendment right to do so. 

The Stolen Valor Statute did not prohibit veterans and non-veterans from bragging about alleged accomplishments. Instead, it specifically targets a specific type of uniquely shameful lie.

As the dissenting opinion points out, wearing a medal or an award (whether it is a military medal, an Olympic medal, or a Cub Scout pin) means that someone in a position of authority determined that you should be awarded this emblem and are entitled to wear it. In short, honor matters. Achievement matters.

The Defendant did not have to explain to anyone what wearing a Purple Heart on a military uniform means. Without any words being exchanged, many if not most would recognize that his Purple Heart meant that he had been wounded in battle. The Ninth Circuit believes that his doing so is a type of free speech. I consider it a type of dishonorable conduct.         

Judge Williams is the justice of the peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.