The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to falsely claim entitlement to a military medal or decoration. Those convicted of falsely claiming the right to wear the Medal of Honor may face up to a year in prison. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush and widely supported among veterans. It has, however, encountered obstacles in the courts, challenged on 1st amendment grounds. In United States vs. Alvarez, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that the U.S. has no compelling interest in prohibiting false claims of entitlement to these awards. Judge Milan Smith, writing for the majority, wrote that if we outlawed lying about medals and war decorations, then one would have to wonder whether it was constitutionally permissible to lie about one’s weight, relationship status, or lying to one’s mother about drinking, smoking and sex.
The law is headed to the Supreme Court for final review.
Not All Harmless Lies
The damage done from falsely claiming the honor and credibility society ascribes to decorated war veterans is not limited to harmless tall tales over a couple of beers at the local dive bar. Those with personalities defective enough to lay these false claims are sometimes sociopaths capable of far more serious crimes. In one case, a man falsely claiming to be a Navy SEAL, complete with an in-uniform photo on a dating website page, was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl who answered a Craigslist ad looking for a job. He falsely told the girl he owned several businesses, and when she filled out an employment application, according to prosecutors, he told her that the application was a contract obligating her to have sex with him, or he could sue her parents or guardians.
In other cases, phony veterans have set up charities, scamming donors for millions of dollars. These cases, however, involving provable can be prosecuted under existing fraud laws. The Stolen Valor Act is not required to put them in jail.
While part of the reluctance of some judges to uphold the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act revolves around the lack of a requirement for damages – the Act does not require someone to show they were harmed by the false claim – there is at least one case in which a legitimate SEAL veteran, Don Shipley, owner/operator of a SEAL-themed adventure camp in Virginia, is suing a non-SEAL competitor, Barry Silverman, of Tactical Deterrence in Broward County, Florida, for using the SEAL insignia on his marketing material. This would be a purely civil matter – the plaintiff is arguing that his business is materially harmed by the misleading advertising. Shipley is also suing another man, William Brockbrader of Salt Lake City, Utah, accusing him of defaming his business as ‘only pretending to offer SEAL training.’ Shipley’s attorney, Gene Odom of Tampa, Florida, states that he targeted Brockbrader for the lawsuit not just because of the statements he made about Shipley’s business, but because he falsely claimed to be a SEAL.