Monday, February 08, 2010

Testing the Stolen Valor Act

Over the past couple of years, we've written extensively about various phonies and frauds prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibits individuals from wearing--or making false claims--about military medals or decorations they never received. Sponsored by a pair of Congressional Democrats, the measure received broad, bipartisan support, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006.

Over the past four years, the law has snagged several high-profile offenders--elected officials or other public figures who lied about their military service and the awards they earned. One of the more infamous cases involved Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Walnut Valley Water Board in Claremont, California. After winning election to the panel, Mr. Alavarez was asked to introduce himself to fellow board members. He responded with a brief resume of military valor and extraordinary heroism:

"I'm a retired Marine of 25 years," Alvarez said. "I just retired in 2001. Back in 1987 I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times, at the same time. I'm still around."

As readers will recall, Mr. Alaverez's claim had a couple of problems. First, he never received the Congressional Medal of Honor. And secondly, he never spent a single day in the Marine Corps, or any other branch of service.

Making matters worse, Alvarez repeated the boast several times, and his claims about being a MOH recipient were caught on tape. Someone alerted federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Alvarez under the Stolen Valor Act. Facing no-nonsense Federal Judge Edward Rafeedie, the water board official decided to enter a guilty plea. He received probation and a fine for his crime, a federal misdemeanor. Had he been convicted at trial, Alvarez could have received a one-year jail sentence.

Attempting to help their client beat the rap, Mr. Alvarez's attorneys offered a novel defense. His false statements about winning the Medal of Honor (and being a Marine Corps veteran) were actually protected political speech, guaranteed under the First Amendment. In other words, the Democratic official had a constitutional right to lie.

That claim was rejected outright by Federal Judge Gary Klausner, who rejected a pre-trial motion to dismiss the charges against Alvarez. Judge Klausner ruled that the elected official's lies were not political speech, and his "false statement of facts" did not merit First Amendment protection.

Undeterred, Alvarez's defense team has continued their appeal of Klausner's decision. A similar case has been brought in Colorado by lawyers representing Rick Glen Strandlof, who founded an organization that helps homeless veterans. Mr. Strandlof also claimed to be a former Marine who had been wounded in Iraq. The Pentagon says there is no record of Strandlof ever serving in the military. Indicted under the Stolen Valor Act, Strandlof has entered a not guilty plea. His trial is pending.

Some legal experts say the current law is too vague, claiming it essentially bans "bragging." George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says the concept behind the stolen valor law could criminalize "half the pickup lines in bars across America."

But we share the view of military historian Doug Sterner. He notes that concerns about fraudulent claims of military honors date back to our first Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. After creating the nation's first military decoration, the Purple Heart, Washington warned that "should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished."

Sterner believes the current Stolen Valor law follows the intent of the framers. We concur and hope that both Alvarez and Strandlof fail in their appeals. The value of any military medal or decoration lies not in the device, but in the sacrifice, dedication and heroism of the recipient. Without that assurance, the medal becomes nothing more than metal and cloth. Our war heroes deserve better. Let's hope the judiciary agrees.

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