ON JUNE 28, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2006 Stolen Valor Act infringes on constitutionally protected speech. The law — which sought to punish individuals who falsely present themselves as recipients of the Medal of Honor or other military decorations — was deemed unconstitutional because, in the court’s view, the First Amendment protects even an individual’s right to lie.
This was the right decision: Allowing the government to prosecute liars would have set a dangerous precedent in restricting an individual’s freedom of expression.
Although the court’s verdict was appropriate, it’s also true that the lies that the Stolen Valor Act strove to punish are particularly reprehensible, as they undermine the men and women in uniform — and their families — who have served the country at great personal risk and who earn the honors the military bestows on them. The First Amendment may guarantee the right of individuals such as Xavier Alvarez of California to lie about decorations and years of service, but such lies can inflict great pain on true recipients. The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, acknowledged the “sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment.”
The high court recommended a concrete and constitutional solution. “A Government-created database could list Congressional Medal of Honor Winners,” the opinion notes. “Were a database accessible through the Internet, it would be easy to verify and expose false claims.”
Just a few weeks after the ruling, the Pentagon has taken that advice to heart, planning exactly such a database. Details are forthcoming, but the intention is to create a digital record of awards and medals that goes back as far as possible. Even though a 1973 fire destroyed millions of listings at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, the Pentagon’s database, upon its completion, will serve as a powerful resource both for maintaining the honor of those who serve and for holding citizens accountable for the claims that they make.
The Stolen Valor Act, despite its encroachment on liberties that the First Amendment protects, was an attempted solution to a real problem that continues. Now that the court has clarified the constitutional parameters of the issue, it’s good to see government officials proceed with other solutions that don’t negate — albeit inadvertently — fundamental rights.
As the Supreme Court concludes: “The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true.” The Pentagon’s database should help promote true speech.