Monday, February 20, 2012

Lying about military service should not be a crime

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 7:00 AM

An op-ed in New York Times makes the case that the Stolen Valor Act — making it a crime to lie about military service even when no harm is done to others — is bad law.

William Turner brings up one of the points I was thinking about this morning while reading a news account of the coming U.S. Supreme Court arguments on a challenge to the law.

The Stolen Valor Act is also dangerously broad: it puts satire and parody at risk of criminal prosecution. The comedian Stephen Colbert could not safely perform a skit in which his blowhard patriot persona claimed to have a medal. The act doesn’t require proof that anyone believed or was deceived by the false claim.

If the Supreme Court were to accept the government’s argument, other disconcerting legislation could easily follow. Congress could enact a law that criminalized false claims by political candidates about their qualifications for office, or false claims about their opponents. Surely the government has an “important” interest in preventing voter deception. But as much as we want to encourage factual accuracy in our politicians, do we really want the government to prosecute, for example, Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who falsely stated on his Senate Web site that his parents moved from Cuba after — rather than before — Fidel Castro took power? Who among us has not said things about ourselves that are untrue? Who has not exaggerated or embellished details to tell a better story?

Tempting as it is to consider criminal penalties for lying politicians (or hyperbolic bloggers), it's not sound First Amendment law.

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