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Son of 'Stolen Valor'

July 12, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) sees a way around a Supreme Court decision on those who boast about nonexistent military service or honors.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) sees a way around a Supreme Court decision on those… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

There are (at least) two reasons to pass a law: to address a practical problem and to send a message. A bill by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) to criminalize lying about military service “for tangible benefit or personal gain” seems to fall into the second category.

The Webb bill is a response to last month’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to lie about having received military honors. The decision overturnd the conviction of Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in eastern Los Angeles County who falsely claimed that he held the congressional Medal of Honor.  (That was only one of his whoppers. He also said he had played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and once married a starlet from Mexico. Yeah, that's the ticket.)

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for himself and three other members of the court, emphasized that the law punished false claims “en­tirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.”  That implied that it might be constitutional for Congress to punish a financial fraud involving misrepresentation of military service. In a concurring opinion, Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan suggested more generally that Congress might pass “a more narrowly tailored statute.”

Enter Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy. His Military Service Integrity Act would provide for fines or imprisonment for anyone who “with the intent of securing a tangible benefit or personal gain, knowingly, falsely and materially represents himself or herself through any written or oral communication (including a resume) to have served in the Armed Forces of the United States or to have been awarded any decoration, medal, ribbon or other device authorized by Congress or pursuant to Federal law for the Armed Forces of the United States.” The bill would also punish the unauthorized sale of military medals.

Would the bill be constitutional? Probably. Is it necessary? That’s doubtful. Even if other laws against fraud wouldn’t take care of the problem of boasting-for-gain, the chances that a poseur will try to trade on a false claim of military distinction seem pretty remote, especially now that the Pentagon is planning to set up a database listing the recipients of military honors. (There already is a website for Medal of Honor awardees.)

The Webb bill’s value seems to be more symbolic than substantive. It’s a way to channel the outrage that motivated the Stolen Valor Act without running afoul of the 1st Amendment. Is that sufficient justification for enacting it? Maybe, but the same end could be accomplished by a “sense of the Senate” resolution condemning Xavier Alvarez and other warrior wannabes.


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