Thursday, September 23, 2010


Question: Does freedom of expression include a “right” to lie?

Answer: Yes, it does.

In 2007 Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, making it unlawful to falsely state he has been awarded a military decoration. The law was enacted after decades of phony “war heroes” claim to hold everything up to and including the Medal of Honor. The act prevents falsely claiming verbally or in writing to have received “any of the service medals or badges awarded to members (of the armed forces) the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item.”

Yet earlier this year a Colorado judge deemed the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional on the basis of “free speech.”

The jurist is District Judge Robert Blackburn, who declared the law “troubling” and somehow contrary to “well established First Amendment doctrine.” You have to go a long way around the block to arrive at the destination the judge desires, because his ruling cites higher court decisions regarding public depiction of pornography and animal cruelty.

Previously the federal government had filed dozens of cases against individuals who misrepresented their military records. The offenders include veterans as well as people who have never served in the armed forces. So how does anyone justify a blatant misrepresentation made public by appearance, speech, or writing?

Presumably the “Go ahead and lie” concept relates to the old (old) stricture against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Consequently, pettifogging lawyers for the wannabe heroes have adopted a “no harm, no foul” argument, asserting that absent any harm, there should be no offense. By extension, that line of “reasoning” holds that people should be free to lie without accountability.

The “Go ahead and lie” crowd ignores an intrinsic contradiction. The U.S. Government produces and awards military medals to service members deemed worthy of the decorations. (The fact that everything from the Medal of Honor on down has been awarded according to vastly different criteria is a separate issue.) Since We The People create and present military medals, it’s entirely appropriate and logical that We the People can and should state under what conditions those items may be worn or otherwise claimed. Limiting their display or claim to individuals who have actually earned them represents no form of discrimination against imposters, nowaynohow. Anybody with two gray cells to rub together understands that concept.

Military imposters are everywhere. It’s almost epidemic proportions, leading to web sites containing the names of fakers. And thereby lies another inherent contradiction: most phonies want to be known under their own names, otherwise what’s the point? So at least part of the problem is due to na├»ve/gullible/stupid people who accept fakes at their word rather than spending two minutes on Google. After all, this is The Information Age.

Yet liars and fakers persist. One of the most successful was the publisher of Arizona’s largest newspaper. For years he passed himself off as an Air Force pilot, complete with mess dress uniform and miniature medals. Finally in the 1980s he was exposed by one of his own reporters.

A Californian got away with absurd claims to naval aviation heroism for years before he died. His Powerpoint presentation showed “him” with “his squadron.” The photo was immediately recognizable: it was lifted from a book by a colleague of mine. The “lanky gentleman” of email fame was a total fraud: his name appeared in no documents covering the ships or squadrons he claimed. Yet he deceived school teachers and his local paper, which ignored irrevocable evidence of his lying and refused to correct a fawning obituary.

In Florida during the 1990s an individual passed himself off as “Colonel John C. Meyer,” high-scoring fighter ace and recipient of three Distinguished Service Crosses. A model shop run by babes in the Everglades presented him replicas of “his” airplanes and showed his picture on a web site. The teeny-weeny problem was, four-star General John C. Meyer had died in 1975. When the modelers were confronted with the facts—they didn’t believe me at first.

Other fakes persist despite being easily disproved. I’ve met a Jewish gal who claimed she flew F-4 Phantoms in the Israeli Air Force but didn’t know that delta-winged aircraft bleed energy in turns. I’ve met an overweight (read: semi-obese) “sniper” who claimed he’d been in combat three years previously.

So where do we stand with the Colorado case?

Prosecutors said they would appeal Blackburn’s ruling, and undoubtedly it will take years to shake out, if at all. Defenders of the truth default to the emotional level: permitting imposters to get away with their claims denigrates the service and sacrifice of genuine military personnel. That’s undoubtedly true, but it should not obscure the black-white ethical concerns.

Meanwhile, Blackburn’s “Go ahead and lie” decision represents the continued erosion of traditional/historic values in this nation. Another generation will grow up amid greater confusion about right and wrong, increasingly confused as to when it’s alright to lie and when it’s not. So here’s a quick reference for the ethically challenged:

(1) Lying is wrong.
(2) Liars should be held accountable.
Next subject.