Adam Liptak has an article in the NYT about a guy who is being prosecuted by the federal government for falsely claiming to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. After being elected to the local water board, Xavier Alvarez introduced himself at a public meeting by falsely claiming to be a former marine, and that he had received the CMOH.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (which amended 18 U.S.C. Sect. 704, which used to just make it illegal to forge military medals) it is now a federal crime to falsely claim to have been awarded any military medal, punishable by up to 6 months in prison. Lie about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, or several other medals including the Purple Heart, and the prison time can go up to one year.
Mr. Alverez’s lawyer has moved to dismiss on First Amendment grounds. But leaving aside the question of whether the government is forbidden to punish people who lie about receiving medals, why is it good policy to do so? I’ll stipulate that people who lie about being awarded medals they didn’t earn are loathsome scumbags (although, you know, some might not be), but should all loathsome scumbaggery be criminalized? The stated rationale for the law, that liars like Mr. A cheapen the accomplishments of the real recipients, doesn’t hold water with me. I really can’t steal your valor, now, can I? I mean, if you’re a hero, you’re a hero, even if some bozo in a bar falsely tells his prospective inamorata that he’s one, too.
But even if I’m wrong, and even if real CMOH winners are deeply offended by Mr. A and his like (I’m sure many are), we generally don’t jail people for offensiveness, even offensiveness to people we value very highly. And I don’t think we should. There are social sanctions for being discovered to be a jerk, and Mr. A seems to be suffering some of them. In the internet age, it will be harder for him to escape the ridicule and scorn of his neighbors. Aren’t these social sanctions sufficient punishment and deterrence? Is it really necessary to impose criminal sanctions as well?