Almost always, there is a better way than to silence free speech – even offensive free speech. On Tuesday, weeks after the Supreme Court said the Constitution protects liars who falsely claim to have won military medals, the better way emerged.
In a 6-3 decision last month, the court struck down a 2006 law that made it a federal crime to lie about receiving military medals. It was the right ruling, though not a happy or popular one.
To lie about receiving decorations for which members of the military may have been severely wounded or even killed is an infamy. There is no possible excuse for it, but to make it a crime is an obvious violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The ruling was a surprise only in that it wasn't unanimous.
But there's more than one way to deter a scoundrel, and the Pentagon has lighted on an obvious one. It has announced plans to establish a searchable database of military valor awards and medals, allowing the public to easily verify the claims of people claiming to have received such recognition.
That's the way this should have been handled from the beginning. The Stolen Valor Act always carried more than a whiff of political theater about it in a country where freedom of speech is enshrined in the first article of the Bill of Rights.
The only time free speech can be abridged or officially penalized is when it can lead to imminent physical harm – yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater – or when it improperly causes damage to someone's reputation – slander. Other than that, the American system has resolved that it is better to put up with the impertinences of liars and blackguards than to trample on the right to free speech that is fundamental to this country's ideals.
More succinctly, Americans believe – or are supposed to believe, anyway – that the cure for offensive free speech is more free speech.
That's what the Pentagon is committing to. By making it easy to confirm or refute a claim to have won a medal, it hopes to deter those shameless few who falsely claim the mantle of heroism. It is the right approach, and The Buffalo News intends to consult that list when people in the public sphere say they have won such recognition. We will use freedom of the press to help expose those who abuse freedom of speech.
That still leaves the problem of those who lie about serving in the military or, worse yet, to have served in a war zone. Those miscreants are harder to uncover, but they usually are.
In the meantime, some politicians are still barking up the criminal tree in this matter. One would create penalties for anyone falsely claiming to have served in the military or to have received a military medal or decoration in order to "secure a tangible benefit or a personal gain."But that, theoretically, is why anyone lies about anything. It's a painful thing, especially for the millions of veterans who served honorably and bravely, but the fact is that they served to protect a precious way of life that is built upon the concept of free speech – and the problems it sometimes causes.