It’s a paradoxical fact of our system of justice that lies are sometimes protected as powerfully as the truth under the auspices of freedom of speech. It allows individuals to express political, moral or religious beliefs without fear of repercussion, no matter how false or unreasonable they may seem to others. Freedom of speech protects almost, but not quite everything, we say, write, or do; its protection ends with actions that knowingly harm others.
Libel and slander are attempts to harm someone’s reputation through lies. They fall under the category of defamation and are not protected by freedom of speech. The Constitution doesn’t grant individuals the right to willfully harm others through violence or through lies.
When an individual falsely claims to have received medals and decorations for military service, they are committing a form of defamation that harms the men and women of the armed forces, as well as the public’s trust in those institutions. Therefore, these claims are defamatory and not protected by freedom of speech.
Of course, for a statement to be considered defamatory it must meet several criteria. First of all, a specific claim has to be made and published. The claim must then be proven to cause identifiable injury and be knowingly false. Finally, the claim must not be considered privileged speech.
The first requirement is easily met because someone must falsely say they have received specific medals and commendations for this to even be an issue. The news is replete with stories of individuals claiming medals for military service they never actually received. The publication requirement is just as easily met, because most of these individuals reach notoriety after speaking publicly about their alleged awards. Anything as simple as appearing in a TV interview with the unmerited medals can be considered a publication of the defamatory claim.
That was the easy part. The challenge is proving these false claims cause injury. After all, it seems like when these charlatans are found out they only bring disgrace to themselves. Self-damaging lies are hardly defamatory, but the person lying isn’t the one being harmed. The true victims are the men and women of the armed forces who have legitimately received these medals and decorations others seek to steal. The Stolen Valor Act sums it up best, saying “fraudulent claims … damage the reputation and meaning of such decorations and medals.” Medals convey a message because of what they imply.
We don’t need to know why someone received the Medal of Honor. We understand the recipient has shown bravery and a commitment to the nation and the armed forces that is beyond exemplary. This is the “reputation and meaning” that gives these medals the value needed to show the recipients a small amount of the gratitude they deserve. If anyone can falsely claim to have received these same medals, they lose all meaning in the eyes of the true recipients and the public. This is an unacceptable injury brought upon those who have suffered the most to protect our right of freedom of speech.
The next step is then to prove falsity. This is as straightforward as it sounds. An individual either received the medal they claim, or they did not. There is no gray area or room for debate when dealing with verifiable facts. The only criterion left to meet in order to prove defamation is that these claims are not somehow privileged. Certain claims, made under specific and unusual circumstances can be considered privileged and by definition, not defamatory. These include criticism of public officials and claims made by a witness during a trial. Falsely claiming to have received military commendations is in no way privileged speech.
Clearly, when someone lays claim to military medals and decorations they did not receive they are not making an innocuous lie protected by freedom of speech. They are making a harmful defamatory claim that is not, and should not be, protected by the Constitution. Congress was justified in passing the Stolen Valor Act as a way to prosecute those seeking to harm our servicemen and women through lies and misrepresentations. It doesn’t matter whom the lie is about. What matters is who is hurt when the revelation of that lie erodes the public’s trust in some of our nation’s most sacred symbols.