Use restraint

U.S. Rep Joe Heck of Nevada has proposed a new “Stolen Valor Act” to replace the one that has been under increasing attack by civil libertarians and the courts.

The Act makes it a crime to lie about having served in the military. The law provides for both fines and imprisonment. The annual cost of incarcerating a federal inmate in 2008 was $25,895.

These are not cases of lying under oath. As a result, they fall under the protection of the First Amendment. It is not the role of government to ferret out liars in conversation or on television programs. “The right to speak and write whatever one chooses—including, to some degree, worthless, offensive and demonstrable untruths—without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment,” Judge Milan Smith wrote in a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the law in the ninth circuit.

If lying about military service becomes a concern of the government, can lying on resumes or telling someone, “Have you lost weight?” be far behind? Yes, there are stronger emotions at work in the case of military service, but it is not the role of law to deal with hurt feelings.

In Custer Died For Your Sins, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote of how many whites chronically claim Native American ancestry. Should criminal law be employed to deal with it?

Getting away with false claims of military service is not as easy as it once was. The internet offers rich resources for exposure. There are people who spend their retirements tracking down frauds. There are websites devoted to naming frauds, and a book has been published about them. What purpose is served by getting the federal government involved? Our leaders should be restrained in employing government power.

Douglas Stringfellow was wounded by a mine in France in World War II, with the result that he walked with a cane thereafter. He received the Purple Heart for the injury. His actual history was admirable enough, but he added onto that tale with stories of spy raids behind enemy lines. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah in 1952 and thereafter lived in fear of the day when his past would be revealed. His appearance on an NBC television program, This Is Your Life, filled him with terror. Awards from groups like the Freedoms Foundation increased his peril.

In May 1954, the Army Times—a commercial newspaper for the military—broke the story of his frauds. He withdrew from his reelection race.

“Virtually unemployable in Utah, Stringfellow stayed home while his wife worked and went back to school,” the Deseret News reported years later. “To protect her husband from hostility in his home state, she coaxed him to Mexico, where his paintings sold briskly and he knew some peace.”

He died young, at age 44, his genuine contribution and military service forgotten in the fuss over his fraud. What in this pitiful tale would have been repaired by a criminal conviction?

Rep. Heck’s own military career gives him enhanced credentials to speak on this issue. It does not give him the right to twist U.S. freedoms to employ government power and crack down on what is, in the end, an annoyance rather than a crime.