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By KEN PAULSON
First Amendment Center
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Alvarez come two news items that remind us that lies about military service are best addressed with existing laws and information, not new and overbroad legislation.
Last month, the Supreme Court in a 6-to-3 vote struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which had made it a crime to falsely claim military honors. The Court found that the act violated the First Amendment, criminalizing deceitful speech without a showing of fraud or other criminal activity.
Understandably, the ruling upset many in the military community.
“We would disagree with the majority saying lying about receiving the medals doesn’t devalue them,” retired Army Lt. and Medal of Honor winner Hal Fritz told The Associated Press. “I would say go back with me to Vietnam dragging the dead and dying off the battlefield.”
Many asked what could be done to protect the honor of those who have been awarded the military’s highest honors. One answer came this week in Knoxville.
Charles Kaczmarczyk, 59, and his wife, Martha Ann Kaczmarczyk, 62, of Knoxville, were indicted for allegedly conspiring to defraud the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration by filing false benefits claims.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Bolitho contends that Kaczmarczyk forged Air Force documents “showing that he had earned numerous medals for his combat experience, including two Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars,” according to the AP.
If someone lies about military service in an attempt to defraud others, he or she can be convicted and punished. The Alvarez decision changed none of that.
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Kennedy also had a constructive suggestion.
“A public database of Medal of Honor winners would have much the same deterrent effect as this flawed law,” Kennedy wrote.
That proved to be a cue for the Department of Defense. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced yesterday that a Pentagon website would list the winners of the Medal of Honor since Sept. 11, 2001.
That’s a start. By building a more comprehensive site and including other major military honors awarded in recent decades, the government can inhibit false claims and allow the public more readily to uncover the truth.
The law struck down in Alvarez was clearly unconstitutional, potentially punishing Americans for barroom bragging. Some have explored replacement legislation, but the events of this week suggest no need.
If we apply existing criminal laws and document military awards publicly on the web, we can honor our military heroes without dishonoring our Constitution.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer/First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.