This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
The Stolen Valor Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a week ago, went a very long way to avoid a quarrel with the First Amendment.
It didn’t threaten just anyone who falsely claimed military honors. If there was any way a claim of combat distinction could be theoretically argued, the law didn’t apply. It didn’t apply even to the vast majority of false claims of heroism.
Under the 2005 law, you could still lie about being a military veteran. You could lie about being a brave veteran.
You could lie about fighting in Vietnam even if you were 3 years old at the time. You could lie about fighting fearlessly in the Battle of Khe Sanh, lie about saving lives there, lie about routing the Viet Cong single-handedly. You could lie about being gravely wounded yet giving up your place on the helicopter so that your buddies could be evacuated instead.
You could lie about being tortured as a prisoner of war and refusing to give in. You could lie extravagantly enough to get free drinks from everyone in sight for the rest of your life.
The single thing you could not do is lie about receiving the Medal of Honor or other specific military decoration if a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you had not received one and knowingly claimed you did.
It had to be a lie refuted by objective, bright-line proof – a lie comparable to advertising a Fountain of Youth Cream that supposedly turns 70-year-olds into 20-year-olds, complete with magical birth certificates. The law was so narrow, so based on matters of unambiguous record, that it left no room to single out unpopular opinions or criticism of government.
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