This week I received an E-Sylum submission in an unusual manner - it came in a letter through the U.S. Postal Service. How last-century. Still it was a nice surprise to get a note from Stack's. Inside was a page from the March 9, 2010 issue of USA Today, folded to an article with the headline, "Stolen valor is offensive, but is it a crime?" It's an opinion piece about the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalizes the display of unearned military award medals. I found the online version of the article, and here are some excerpts. Thanks to Dave Bowers for the submission.
Across the country, police are rounding up a growing class of felons: valor thieves. With two wars, valor has become a valuable commodity for individuals who want to skip enlistment and combat and go directly to the hero adoration stage. Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, it is a federal crime to claim unearned military decorations or medals. While widely popular, these prosecutions raise constitutional questions of free speech. From judges to admirals to bank employees, citizens are facing accusations of felonious bravado.
When President Bush signed the act into law, he was probably thinking of people such as Steve Burton. Burton, of Palm Springs, Calif., appeared at his high school reunion in 2009 in the uniform of a Marine lieutenant colonel supporting enough medals to make a Soviet general blush. Unfortunately for him, he ran into a former classmate who is a real Navy commander, and she reported the possible fraudulent medals, including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the Navy Cross. His claim to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq also drew suspicion.
Burton actually works in a bank. He is one of many people who struggle to reinvent themselves in a more heroic image with the help of Internet sites selling uniforms, medals and ribbons. They are the modern-day Walter Mittys - bank tellers and office workers who want to snatch notoriety from the jaws of mediocracy.
From 2005 to 2009, federal prosecutors charged 48 people under the Stolen Valor Act.
While most people, no doubt, share the anger and disgust with people claiming such honors, the question is where to draw the line between free speech and criminal conduct. Citizens have a right to burn an American flag as a form of protected speech. However, if they do so while wearing a single falsely claimed medal, they can be prosecuted. If Congress can criminalize such claims, it could make half of the pick-up lines used in bars across the country crimes. It could theoretically criminalize other false claims from architects to accountants to anthropologists.
To read the complete article, see:
Stolen valor is offensive
Wayne Homren, Editor
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