(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. government got a step closer to punishing those who lie about military service for profit when the House of Representatives passed a revamped version of the Stolen Valor Act Thursday.
The legislation, which will go on to a similar vote in the Senate, would make it illegal for anyone to “knowingly” misrepresent their service “with the intent to obtain anything of value.” Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2011, offenders would be subject to fines and short prison sentences, some of which can be lengthened if the guilty party lied about serving in a combat zone, serving with a special operations contingent or winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
The new act was introduced after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court struck down a previous version of the law, calling it unconstitutional. That version was broader and criminalized the act of telling a lie about military honors or wearing unearned military awards, regardless of whether it was for profit.
The case moved up to the U.S. Supreme Court after an appeal, and the nation’s highest court agreed with the 9th Circuit Court’s decision — that the law, as written, was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Basically, it violated the right to lie.
“The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his written opinion in June. “… [T]he sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment… Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”
The new law is designed to assuage those concerns and specifically targets people who intend to profit from their lies, making the act more akin to fraud.
“Our service men and women who have been decorated — some of them posthumously — for their exemplary service and heroic sacrifice defending our nation and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans deserve the valor they displayed to be defended against those who would seek to benefit from lying about military decorations,” said Rep. Joe Heck (R.-Nevada), who introduced the new bill. “The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 achieves this objective while ensuring we protect the constitutional liberties for which they fought.”
The cases of military fakers spans across the country and, as a result, a small cadre of real veterans have donated their time to tracking down and publicly shaming the so-called phonies.
“It’s not the barroom loudmouth that anyone is interested in,” Don Shipley, a former SEAL who has been given unique access to the SEAL personnel database so he can root out Navy special warfare fakers, told ABC News in February. “People tend to believe what they’re told, they use that… They do an awful lot of damage.”
Doug Sterner, also a veteran and a private watchdog who tracks military phonies, told ABC News after the Supreme Court decision that he put his hope in the new version of the bill.
“I’ve lost at things before. I pick myself up and I keep going because that’s what we as soldiers [do] — and I’m an old soldier… We don’t dwell on our losses, but we keep fighting to get a victory,” Sterner said on Friday.
In July, the White House announced its own strategy to hit back against military imposters: a website that tracks the names of actual medal winners from across the services.
“It may no longer be a crime for con artists to pass themselves off as heroes, but one thing is certain — it is contemptible,” President Obama said in an announcement after the Supreme Court decision. “So this week, we will launch a new website, a living memorial, so the American people can see who’s been awarded our nation’s highest honors. Because no American hero should ever have their valor stolen.”
Regardless of whether the new bill is eventually signed into law, Shipley said he and others like him won’t stop going after those he says dishonor his brothers in arms.
“It really doesn’t matter in the long run,” he said. “We’ll come back at them again and again.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jareen Imam, CNN
Kelly Wallace, CNN
Samira Said and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN