The U.S. Supreme Court will soon test the old saying “bad facts make for bad law” again. If it proves to be in the least bit true, it will be doing better than the person whose lies required the high court to test that maxim again.
Wednesday, the court heard the government’s appeal of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that backed the right of known liar Xavier Alvarez to continue practicing his craft, as it were.
Alvarez, according to NPR.com, lies about all kinds of things, such as being an engineer, a former professional hockey player or about being the man who rescued the American ambassador from Iran in 1979. Those boasts are outlandish, but wilder falsehoods of daring-do have certainly been told at the Imperial or Viking in order to hustle free beer or a date.
Then there are the other lies Alvarez has told, ones that have run him afoul of the law. Again, according to NPR.com, one whopper was claiming his ex-wife as eligible to be covered by his health plan. That one earned him a prison sentence for insurance fraud. However, the falsehood that earned him (well, his lawyer, anyway, since Alvarez is currently in prison for the health care scam) a hearing in front of the nation’s highest court is the one he told a California water board to which he’d been elected that he was a former Marine who earned the Medal of Honor. Alvarez had done nothing of the sort, and his claim to have done so ran him afoul of the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law making it a crime to falsely claim receipt of a military decoration.
There’s no doubt Congress’ heart was in the right place when it passed this law and President George W. Bush signed it in 2006. Lying about military service, particularly about receiving the nation’s highest military honor, is reprehensible. There are two reasons it’s particularly difficult to talk to a real Medal of Honor winner in person. First, the honor is rarely bestowed, as only about 3,400 of the decorations have been awarded in the 150-year history of the honor. Second, the majority of those who earn the medal die in doing so. Of the 851 Medals of Honor bestowed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, 523 were awarded posthumously. The soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen who are tapped for the medal definitely deserve better than to have some lout lie about getting it to earn election to a minor city office — or any of the other reasons people lie about any military honor they didn’t earn.
But criminalizing lying — except when the falsehood causes measurable physical or financial harm — goes too far. The government would then be in the business of deciding which lies are merely bad and which ones deserve jail time. Where would, say, lying about being a cancer patient to garner sympathy fall on the scale? It’s low, but is it lower than falsely claiming a Silver Star? What about lying to a boss when asked where you were yesterday? Lying to a loved one about the same question? All of these carry some level of immorality, but are all of them objectively either better or worse than fibbing about military service? It’s OK not to know, because Chief Justice John Roberts doesn’t either. According to the Associated Press, he asked the government attorney arguing in favor of the law “Where do you stop?”
The best way to handle Roberts’ question is by not starting. Alvarez, after he completes his prison term, will almost certainly be persona non grata wherever he goes. His reputation lies in tatters, and will be difficult to rebuild. That’s how American society has dealt with liars up until now, and social shunning and probation has worked to this point.
Besides, America needs its liars. They keep us on our collective toes so we don’t blindly accept anything that comes out of someone’s mouth, particularly the mouths of our leaders. They also remind us of the great things and missteps in human history. Whenever someone denies the Holocaust, the assertion of truth reminds us of just how awful humanity can be and that we need to take steps to ensure atrocities of that scale are fought against and stopped where possible. Whenever someone lies and says President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, it encourages us to remember racism still exists in our society, and allows us to take pride in the fact we’ve come far enough in fighting it to elect a black man with an unusual name.
The AP’s reporting on the case suggests some justices might be willing to come to a narrowly worded conclusion that makes it OK to criminalize lying about receiving military honors. Good luck. Any ruling that upholds the Stolen Valor Act would either be too narrow to be meaningful or too broad in its encroachment of free speech.
Let’s honor our veterans and current military by praising their valor and rebuking those who would steal it. But let’s do so socially, not criminally.
• Charles Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The viewpoints expressed here are his, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Empire’s editorial board.