U.S Supreme Court hearing arguments over Stolen Valor law, Xavier Alvarez

The Takeaway

Xavier Alvarez has lied about playing for the Detroit Red Wings, being secretly married to a Mexican actress, getting wounded multiple times during combat as a Marine and receiving the Medal of Honor.

Much of this list of tall tales may seem laughable. But some of it is criminal. Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, his lies about his military record could land him in jail.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear his case and determine whether or not Americans should be imprisoned for things they say rather than just for actions they commit.

Pam Sterner went back to school in her early 40s at Colorado State University. In a political science course, she wrote a paper “Stolen Valor” that grew out of her husband’s frustrations over phony award claimants whose worst punishment was public embarrassment, and eventually led to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

“The way that I see this, and the reason why I wrote the paper that became this law is that I see this more as an impersonation, as a fraud issue, than a freedom of speech issue” Sterner said. “You cannot impersonate a police officer. You cannot impersonate a judge. You ought not to be able to impersonate a veteran, somebody who has served our country honorably.”

Of course, impersonating a police officer can have real consequences for public safety. Impersonating a veteran doesn’t necessarily have those same consequences.

But Sterner said it takes away from the medal system that’s in place — and it places suspicion on the actual veterans.

“It also changes our history. These people make up battles, they make up injuries they’ve received that are often even chronicled in the Library of Congress as being true fact. I think it does hurt all Americans,” Sterner said.

But Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at George Washington University, says the Stolen Valor Act of 2006 raises very real First Amendment issues.

“I think it is is unconstitutional,” Turley said. “If you use a lie to acquire any type of benefit, it is in fact prosecuted, when the lie becomes larceny or fraud or perjury. It’s prosecuted for the collateral crime.”

Turley said prosecutors will already regularly charge individuals who claim military awards they don’t have even if they receive only the slightest benefit.

“For good reason. None of us question that those people should be put in jail if they’re deriving benefits from these (lies.) There’s a lot of these cases. And it’s not just valor. A lot of people do the same thing when they’re terminally ill,” Turley said.

Importantly, Turley said, this is a slippery slope. This country has never made the idea of a lie a crime. There’s always been a line of when a lie derives a benefit to make it a crime.

He also said the people who lie about serving in battle are already easy to identify, expose and ever ridicule.

“They tend to promote themselves into absurdity. It becomes addictive,” Turley said.

But Sterner says that’s not enough. These people, like Alvarez, do this for the attention. And he’s getting attention — even if it is for being a liar.

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