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Carl Kanowsky: The Fourth, and beloved freedoms

Posted: July 6, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 6, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

How was your 4th of July? Barbecue and fireworks? Relaxing and watching some games on TV?  
The Fourth has become a little like Christmas. The reason for the holiday may get muted in all the commercial fanfare. But it’s not as bad as Christmas, obviously. Politicians still give patriotic speeches, and the Sousa marches remind us of the reason for the celebration and fireworks.


The Supreme Court helped drive home the message last week with its decision in United States v. Alvarez. That decision concerned the Stolen Valor Act (probably the most stirring title for a piece of legislation in a long time).
The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals and provides an enhanced penalty, if the Congressional Medal of Honor is involved.

 
Xavier Hernandez was a member of Pomona’s Three Valley Water District Board. For reasons known only to him, Alvarez claimed: 1.) He played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings; 2) he once was married to a Mexican starlet; 3) had served in the Marine Corps; and 4) had won the Medal of Honor in 1987. Not one of these claims is true.
In this day and age, it’s foolish to lie about such things. Ten minutes on the Internet will reveal all members of the Red Wings and all recipients of the Medal of Honor.


So Xavier didn’t just stretch the truth — he told bold-faced falsehoods. Now there’s no criminal penalty about misrepresenting your prowess on the ice (unless it’s done to falsely obtain some financial benefit).  
But, in 2005, Congress made telling a lie about getting medals a crime punishable by jail time. In this case, Hernandez was not charged with fraud or perjury. He was only charged with saying he got the Medal of Honor when he actually did not.


“For all the record shows, respondent’s statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the Medal.”
And that distinction is what drove the Supreme Court decision. “[A]s a general matter, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content.”  


The Fourth of July celebrates our collective efforts to be free of tyranny. It covers the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the first years of our country as a nation free of Britain. Included in that is the drafting of the Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, among other things, guarantees the citizens freedom of speech, a drastically new concept. It is a right that has been vigorously protected over the years.


The court ruled that if someone tells lies about himself simply to inflate his ego no crime is committed. “Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense … would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need [a] Ministry of Truth.”
So, while there’s nothing to praise Mr. Hernandez for in this case, it is another example of why we should be proud to be Americans.


Carl Kanowsky of Kanowsky & Associates is an attorney in the Santa Clarita Valley. He may be reached by email at cjk@kanowskylaw.com or online through his law firm at www.kanowskylaw.com. Kanowsky’s column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.

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