President Obama announced today that later this week the federal government will launch a website to try to reduce the number of Americans fraudulently claiming to have been awarded medals by the military, a response to the June ruling by the Supreme Court that the “Stolen Valor” law was unconstitutional.
“It may no longer be a crime for con artists to pass themselves off as heroes, but one thing is certain — it is contemptible,” the president told the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Reno, Nev. “So this week, we will launch a new website, a living memorial, so the American people can see who’s been awarded our nation’s highest honors. Because no American hero should ever have their valor stolen.”
White House officials have worked with the military to compile and publish information about those who have received the military’s two highest awards for valor — Medals of Honor and Service Crosses — since Sept. 11, 2001. The website, valor.defense.gov, is scheduled to launch Wednesday.
Officials say that the effort does not replace the efforts of members of Congress to draft legislation that will pass Constitutional muster and allow for the prosecution of those who lie about awards. By launching a web site that lists those who have received awards, the White House hopes members of the public will be able to check to see if someone is lying.
Those in charge of the project hope to also gather information on the recipients of Silver Stars, and they’re reviewing the feasibility of including those who received awards before Sept. 11, 2001; some of the older awards don’t have the same backup records, making it difficult for the Pentagon to accurately assess whether an award was approved. Moreover, many of those who received awards prior to 2001 have since left the military, so their records may not be as current.
President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law in 2006. The bill amended the federal criminal code “to expand the prohibition against wearing, manufacturing, or selling military decorations or medals without legal authorization”; it also prohibits “purchasing, soliciting, mailing, shipping, importing, exporting, producing blank certificates of receipt for, advertising, trading, bartering, or exchanging such decorations or medals without authorization.”
The law prohibited “falsely representing oneself as having been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces or any of the service medals or badges” and it increases “penalties for violations if the offense involves a distinguished service cross, an Air Force Cross, a Navy Cross, a silver star, or a Purple Heart.”
Those convicted faced prison sentences of up to a year.
In 2007, Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Three Valley Water District Board in Eastern Los Angeles, identified himself as “a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”
None of this was true.
Alvarez was indicted under the law, but he challenged its constitutionality and on June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court by a vote of 6 to 3 declared the Stolen Valor Act an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech.
Wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, for the majority, “Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.”
“The remedy for speech that is false,” Kennedy wrote, “is speech that is true.”
That, apparently, is the idea behind this new website.
– Jake Tapper