Bogus medals reprehensible, but not criminal
Published: Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006
Perhaps more than a winner, Americans love a hero. Heroes embody qualities we believe represent the best of the American spirit, including the resolve to see something through to the end, battling against fearsome odds and a never-say-die attitude. Our ancestors displayed these qualities as they forged a new nation out of the wilderness of the New World and pushed the frontier to the Pacific Ocean. Millions of immigrants also showed what they were made of by boarding ships bound for the United States in their quest for a better life, leaving behind everything they had known. They were all heroes in their own ways. No less important, though fewer in number, are our military heroes. They have given themselves to this country in ways most of us will never know, many, including some in eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle, making the ultimate sacrifice. They’ve done so because they believe in what the United States stands for: individual liberty as outlined in the Constitution and represented in the Declaration of Independence. For the service and sacrifice these men and women have made, they’re often recognized with medals, a small gesture that shows them the rest of us realize their actions were above and beyond the call of duty. A quick glance at a soldier’s chest or a veteran’s medal proudly worn on special occasions tells an observer the wearer has answered the call of his or her nation in ways that challenged them to rise above enormous odds, and they met the challenge. Or does it? There are 113 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. FBI agent Tom Cottone said last week in an Associated Press report that imposters outnumber the actual heroes. The exact number is unknown, but Cottone has made a second career tracking the frauds. “There are more and more of these impostors, and they are literally stealing the valor and acts of valor of the real guys,” Cottone told AP. There are degrees of fakery. Some imposters wear fraudulent medals to bask in the glory another has won, some merely claim awards to which they’re not entitled. The former is in some cases illegal, the latter pitiful; both are shameful. Under current law, wearing a Medal of Honor one isn’t entitled to can get one in trouble, but simply claiming such an award is legal. Other medals such as the Silver Star and Distinguished Cross are not covered by the law. And it’s not just veterans and civilians committing the frauds. There have been several high-profile cases in the past few years that involved active duty troops and officers wearing honors they had not earned. Although this might not seem like much of a problem for folks outside the military, Colorado Rep. John Salazar has introduced legislation aimed at curbing the abuse. Named the Stolen Valor Act, H.R. 3352 takes on these faux heroes by criminalizing their false claims to respect. It reads in part: “Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, or the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration or medal, or any colorable imitation thereof shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.” At first look, that seems as though it would give the feds the authority they presently lack to crack down on these fakers, which is exactly what it is intended to do. What is also does is run afoul of the First Amendment, which reads, in part: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.” That seems pretty clear. Granted, the First Amendment is not a blank check to say whatever one wants, as outlined in several Supreme Court decisions. But falsely claiming to be entitled to an award doesn’t rise to the level when such prohibitions would kick in. We agree the government likely has the authority to crack down on those who wear honors they don’t deserve and that the imposters deserve to be treated with the repugnance reserved for the most morally deficient among us. But when government starts to criminalize words that while reprehensible, really do no harm to the rights of others, it goes beyond its limits as defined by the Constitution. And it’s a slap to all those who have sworn to uphold that Constitution.
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