U.S. senator pushes reworked Stolen Valor bill
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown is calling for passage of a bill that he said would punish those who seek to benefit by lying about receiving the Medal of Honor and other top military honors.
Brown is pushing the bill after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in United States v. Alvarez, struck down the original version of the 2006 Stolen Valor Act. That law — enacted when the U.S. was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq — was aimed at people making phony claims of heroism.
The justices called such false claims of military heroism “contemptible,” but said they were protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
The government had defended the law as necessary to punish impostors and protect the integrity of military medals.
Brown is hoping to ease those constitutional concerns by narrowing the focus of the bill to those who seek to profit in some way from their misrepresentations.
That profit could be either financial or in some other material way — such as an award, job, honor or anything else of value.
The language in the bill targets an individual who, “with intent to obtain anything of value, knowingly makes a misrepresentation regarding his or her military service.”
The Republican lawmaker said that although false claims of military honors might be protected under the First Amendment, it was still “cowardly and wrong.”
“Con artists who claim for themselves distinctions and awards they don’t deserve should be held accountable,” Brown said in a new radio ad released yesterday. “That’s why I am working on a new law that will punish military liars and cheats in a way that satisfies the Court’s concerns.”
In its decision striking down the law, the high court voted 6-3 in favor of Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official in California who falsely said he was a decorated war veteran and had pleaded guilty to violating the law.
A spokeswoman for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who is challenging Brown, said she also supported the bill, noting that Warren has three brothers who have served in the military.
Brown has served more than three decades in the Army National Guard.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who served in Vietnam as a Marine officer, announced yesterday that he also would introduce legislation that could bring criminal penalties to any individual making a false claim to have served in the military or to have been awarded a military medal or decoration in order to “secure a tangible benefit or a personal gain.”
“Profiting from the misrepresentation of military service or the award of a decoration or medal for personal gain undermines the value of service and is offensive to all who have stepped forward to serve our country in uniform,” Webb said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to establish a searchable database of military valor awards and medals, hoping for a technological fix to the problem of people getting away with lying about earning military honors.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said details have yet to be worked out, but the intention is to have a digital repository of records on a range of valor awards and medals going back as far in history as possible.
An authoritative database would make it easier to check on award claims, and perhaps would deter some who would make false public claims.
Veterans organizations and some in Congress have long argued that the Pentagon needs such a database. As recently as 2009 the Pentagon argued that it would be too costly and could pose Privacy Act problems. It also argued that any government database would be incomplete because a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed millions of personnel records, including those citing medals and awards, and that even a complete database would do little to reduce the number of false award claims.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., which had expressed sharp disappointment in the Supreme Court ruling, believes that publicizing the false claims of military valor can be an effective deterrent to others.
VFW spokesman Joe Davis said yesterday that his group welcomed the Pentagon’s new approach.
“The cost is minimal compared to the verifiable proof it provides to honorable service members, veterans and all their families,” Davis said.
Little said no final decisions have been made about the type of government database that would be created. He said the goal would be to have it include information not only about recipients of the Medal of Honor, which is the nation’s highest military award, but also those who hold other decorations for valor, such as the Silver Star and Bronze Star.
“There are some complexities involved in looking back into history,” Little said. “We would obviously hope to be able to go as far back as possible, but we also want there to be integrity in the data. So these are factors that are being weighed, and we’re in the process of exploring those options. So the door is open.”