Expose lies with the truth

Thursday, June 28, 2012

When I was about five I remember being caught in a lie by my mother. I don’t recall the lie but I do to this day remember the consequences.

It seemed that for months afterward when I made a statement, my mother questioned its validity. I learned it was easy to tell a lie but difficult to regain credibility.

Service to our country in the military is a noble and honorable duty. In 2005 Congress decided it was ignoble and dishonorable to lie about whether one had received an award for military service, especially the Medal of Honor. It passed the Stolen Valor Act, making it a crime to claim falsely having earned a military honor and setting a greater penalty for claiming to have won the Medal of Honor.

In finding the law unconstitutional today in United States v. Alvarez, the Court in essence held that in this context it was OK to lie. I don’t think my mother would be pleased with this decision, but the Court got it right.

As the Stolen Valor Act was written, it would have created a new exception to free-speech doctrine. It regulated speech on the basis of what was said. Courts have always held that content-based restrictions must be narrowly tailored and strictly construed. This law was too broad and left too many doors open. Government could compile lists of subjects about which false statements are punishable. What if the statements were made in satire or in protest? Further, the law was so broad that a person could be criminally charged for private lies.

Xavier Alvarez’s many false claims about military service and honors were publicly outed. He was mocked online and his lies were reported to the news media. That’s how things should work: The remedy for false speech is truth.

We have men and women sacrificing their lives for our country. For those who want to dilute such honors, there are ways to question their credibility in public without sacrificing free speech.

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