Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
In the character of Thomas Mowbray in "Richard II," Shakespeare reminds us, "The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation: that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay. A jewel in a 10-times-barr'd-up chest is a bold spirit in a loyal breast. Mine honor is my life; both grow in one: Take honor from me, and my life is done."
That is not the mantra and creed of everyone. For some, it is nothing but a speed bump to be passed over swiftly and lightly, as with Xavier Alvarez.
In July 2007, Alvarez decided to share his inner grandiosity in a meeting for a California public water district board. He is an elected official with the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, and in this meeting claimed he was a Marine, had been wounded and awarded the nation's highest military award for valor. None of this is true.
He was subsequently tried and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act. Passed by Congress in 2006, this law says you can't do that. Specifically, it says, "Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States ... shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both."
On appeal, the case of United States vs. Alvarez is under consideration by the Supreme Court. Alvarez believes that under the First Amendment, he has a right to lie about who he is and what he has accomplished.
Should this type of false statement be protected as free speech? Should the protective sweep of the Constitution provide for pretenders, or should there be a narrowly drawn category that is abridged in this case? Forget that stolen valor is insulting to the sacrifice of soldiers. Forget that it's deeply offensive and boils the emotions. Reprehensible as it is, giving offense is not a reason to make it a crime. The Constitution protects a general right to bear false witness.
But to claim a military honor that you did not earn is a different matter. It is theft. It is an attempt to steal intangible, reputational assets that are not rightfully yours. Never mind that we are not talking about something you can hold in your hand. That the asset is immaterial is immaterial to the argument. If you have earned a Purple Heart for valor, that Purple Heart is an award bestowed on you by the United States government for acts of bravery in the official capacity of a soldier and representative of the nation. The award is every bit as real as the purple ribbon, the gold and the superscription of George Washington that are its symbol. Certainly in this digital, virtual world, tangibility is not the defining criterion of a stealable asset.
Further, claiming a Purple Heart that you did not earn is injurious to the nation. Once a person goes public with such a specious claim, that private act begins to have public consequences. It is certainly no crime to dream about earning a Purple Heart, but the act of falsely laying claim to it advances the degradation and decline of our culture.
People lie about all kinds of things, and that is their right. It's un-American, but it's not unconstitutional. All of those lies hurt us too, but the kind of injury we're talking about here is different. Stolen valor trivializes sacrifice in defense of freedom, and in so doing diminishes the value of the liberty we enjoy. Real heroism in America is conferred on the basis of sacrifice in the cause of liberty — a precious asset we place in jeopardy the moment we cease to defend its value.
If you want to falsely claim you played in the NBA, won an Academy Award or earned a degree from MIT, knock yourself out. Sooner or later you'll pay the piper. But if you think you can pin a Purple Heart on your own chest, think again.
Americans should have a right to be unmolested by imposters who wish to make a mockery of that which is most precious to the strength of the nation — its liberty.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. Email: email@example.com.
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