Stolen Valor Offensive, But Is It Criminal? The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it a federal crime to claim unearned military honors. Attorney Jonathan Turley agrees that stolen valor is offensive, but argues that it's also constitutionally protected, and cannot be criminalized.
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Stolen Valor Offensive, But Is It Criminal?

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Stolen Valor Offensive, But Is It Criminal?

Stolen Valor Offensive, But Is It Criminal?

Stolen Valor Offensive, But Is It Criminal?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124498468/124498458" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it a federal crime to claim unearned military honors. Attorney Jonathan Turley agrees that stolen valor is offensive, but argues that it's also constitutionally protected, and cannot be criminalized.

Read Jonathan Turley's Opinion Piece, "Stolen Valor Is Offensive, But Is It A Crime?"

NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, when pretending to be something you're not is a crime. Last month, a man in Houston was arrested after appearing at a December party for the mayor-elect. Michael McManus showed off an Army uniform, decorated top to bottom with military honors and medals, from a Purple Heart to parachute wings, even a medal that appeared to make him a commander of the British Empire. McManus has never been a soldier in the U.S. Army or otherwise. He is just one of nearly 50 people who have been prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, a 2005 law that makes claiming unearned military honors, valor theft, a federal crime.

In an opinion piece in today's USA Today, Jonathan Turley agrees that claiming unearned military awards is unseemly but not criminal. Do you agree? Why or why not? If you've served in the military, if you've earned those honors, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we've posted a link to Jonathan Turley's opinion piece "Stolen Valor is Offensive, But Is It a Crime?" at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and joins us here in Studio 3A. Jonathan, nice to have you back.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (George Washington University): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you agree that this is terrible behavior on anybody's part to pretend to - these great distinctions that they have not earned.

Prof. TURLEY: Well, I think that's the uniform reaction of everyone is a sense of just revulsion and anger, particularly at a time of war. But these cases actually increase during times of war. When you have a lot of these sort of Walter Mittys sitting around in cubicles and watching the war go by, people coming back, and they just want to skip that whole boot camp and combat stage and go straight to the hero adoration stage. And it's something that does come with wars.

CONAN: And this is - well, there are extreme examples. One of the cases you cite in the article, a judge who claimed to have not one but two Congressional Medals of Honor.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah, which is amazing because there's only 120 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, and I think there's only about 17 that have ever gotten two of these things in the history of the United States. But he's a really interesting example. Not only did he hang these in his chambers for people to see...

CONAN: To admire.

Prof. TURLEY: To admire. But it's also an example of what sort of catches these people up. They're very fascinating characters because they seem to develop an insatiable appetite for more and more medals. And so you - they seem to gradually add medals until they look like a Soviet general, and it proves their undoing. It's sort of like people in their resumes saying I have a PhD and then eventually claiming I got a Nobel in chemistry.

CONAN: Right.

Prof. TURLEY: That's what - that's what a Medal of Honor winner would be. And so those are easy to detect. It's the other ones that are not quite that, where people are claiming to be generals or have two Purple Hearts.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. This judge, in fact, got busted when he - what effrontery - applied for a congressional of honor license plate.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah. What I think is particularly fascinating about these people is that the trappings of being a hero are so addictive, and they go from relative mediocrity and then suddenly they're being invited to, you know, these events, celebrating the Marine anniversary. And if you -on my blog I actually posted pictures of them. They actually look every inch a soldier. They carry it off. And - but occasionally they run into a real soldier.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURLEY: And they look at, for example, the guy in Houston and say, a commander of the British Empire? And that's what - that ultimately they're undone because they can't control themselves.

CONAN: Well, that fruit salad that you see on a lot of people's military chest - if you're in the military, you know how to read all that. You know exactly what that means. I served in Afghanistan at this time or I served in Iraq or I served in, you know - and you can tell.

Prof. TURLEY: Absolutely. And there was one guy who was - who went to his high school reunion dressed up as a Marine colonel, lieutenant colonel, sporting a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Navy Cross. And he ran into a real Navy commander. She looked at him and said, something's not right.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURLEY: And so she did research and she's the one who brought him to justice.

CONAN: Well, so we've had examples of these people who do do it and why they do it. Why shouldn't it be a crime?

Prof. TURLEY: Well, it gets into a very difficult First Amendment issue. I mean, effectively, this law criminalizes every pick-up line in every bar across the country. It's very common for people to invent themselves. This is particularly common these days on the Internet. And the question is, is this truly a crime? What is the authority of Congress to say that it's a criminal act to say you're someone you're not? And if they have that authority, can they do that for other professions, if you say you're an architect and you're not? Now, we can criminalize people that are taking money by fraud, that's just criminal fraud.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. TURLEY: And we can prosecute professionals who are pretending to be doctors and lawyers and architects because they're doing something.

CONAN: That is, in effect, fraud, because you can't legally operate without that license, without that accreditation.

Prof. TURLEY: That's right. But this 2005 law is clearly designed for those other people, people who are just parading themselves, who are living a fantasy, and it's a rather sick and pathetic fantasy. But I think you get into serious free speech questions. I mean, you can actually burn the American flag as an act of free speech, but if you are wearing a Purple Heart at that time, you can be prosecuted.

CONAN: And let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Alan(ph) joins us from Phoenix.

ALAN (Caller): Hi. Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Alan. Go ahead, please.

ALAN: Hi. Great. Yes. I'm a former service member, just got out about a year ago, service in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm proud of that service, I'll say. I just wanted to comment that the medals you're awarded while you're in the military aren't just from that branch. They're awards from your country. And they bestow a certain status on you from your country as appreciation from your country. And in traditions - in other countries like Britain, where we draw a lot of our military traditions from - you can still wear those medals as a civilian once you're out, say, on your tuxedo, if they're medals of a certain level of importance or above.

And when people misrepresent themselves, it would be like somebody representing themselves as a senator or an ex-president; of course not at that level, but it's a national title that somebody is trying to (unintelligible). And I don't have any legal expertise, so I can't speak to that, but I just - I do think it's wrong on that account.

CONAN: Nobody argues that it's wrong. It is wrong, Alan. But...

ALAN: Yes.

CONAN: ...should it be a crime, for example, if I pretend to be a United States senator? That's not a crime. It's silly and dumb and pathetic, but it's not a crime.

ALAN: Right. If you reap the benefits from it, though...

CONAN: Ah, that's fraud.

ALAN: Right, right. That is fraud. And I would say that somebody even getting appreciation or being invited to events or anything like that while wearing military medals, that would be fraud. I mean, you're capitalizing on...

CONAN: Because they're stealing something of value, the esteem that is properly due to others.

ALAN: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: I wonder how you would reply to that, Jonathan.

Prof. TURLEY: Well, the problem is that standard doesn't have a real limiting principle. If you can do that - remember, we're prosecuting civilians here, not people from the military. And so if you could do that for the military, can you also do that for people who say I'm a doctor, I'm a dentist? They also get a certain elevation. They may even join certain associations. And are we going to then criminalize fantasy? And particularly with the Internet, that's a very common thing. The military itself really does take this seriously. This is the touchstone of military service.

CONAN: Remember Mike Boorda, the chief of naval operations...

Prof. TURLEY: Exactly.

CONAN: ...and he was challenged on two of his valor marks for service in Vietnam, I think 30 years before he rose to that great rank, and committed suicide.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah. Boorda is a fascinating case because he was the Chief of Naval Operations and he was an extraordinary man. He was the first Chief of Naval Operations - I think he was the 25th...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURLEY: ...who went - got to that stage from the enlisted ranks. You're talking about a person who is - was a celebrated character. But to be challenged in that way - and it was in fact a close question.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. TURLEY: It was...

CONAN: It was debatable.

Prof. TURLEY: It was debatable. But to be challenged in that way for a true military person, and he was a real heroic figure, I think was - just proved his undoing.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jim(ph). Jim with us from Scottsdale.

JIM (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. This whole subject just fascinates me because I ran into it just recently on the Internet, and I believe it was the book which you're talking about. I'm a combat veteran of Vietnam. And it fascinates me because 30 years ago you didn't want to make that claim. Now it sounds like everybody wants to be one. And I don't see that it's a crime. I don't believe it's a crime.

CONAN: You said you encountered it recently?

JIM: I just encountered a Web site where you can actually go through some of these cases and some of these incidents for very high-profile people who are making a lot of claims to being POWs, to having the Medal of Honor. And interestingly enough, I worked for someone at one point in my life who claimed to be a very highly decorated veteran. And I used to try to talk to him about it and he didn't want to talk to me. And I thought, well, this is my boss and a very high ranking officer, so the whole thing must be true. But in fact it wasn't. But I believed it as it went on, you know, even, you know, questioning sometimes some of the details and things.

But as far as these things being crimes, I can't see it being a crime. You know, and the interesting thing to me too is somebody who has a Purple Heart, then they start claiming that they have two Purple Hearts, they have a Silver Star, and then they want to claim they have the Medal of Honor. So...

CONAN: Yeah.

JIM: ...it fascinates me. It's just one little elevation to the next, you know - so many people never wanted to be associated with Vietnam, but now they say were in the military. I don't know. It's a confusing thing to me too.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Okay.

CONAN: Here's an email from Irene(ph) in Winthrop, Massachusetts: It seems to me that the question of whether stolen valor should be a criminal offense depends on what the fabricator has gained from the offense. Did he collect a pension, get a job preference, etcetera, as the result of falsifying military records and awards? A former member of my husband's VA, WA? - VA chapter maybe, VVA chapter - has falsely claimed to have earned a number of combat awards: Purple Hearts, Bronze Star, when in fact he never saw a duty in Vietnam - I guess Vietnam Veterans Association - at all. He never left the U.S. I felt the greatest harm here has been done to the men who did serve in combat. The chapter has recently been named in memory of a wonderful man who died after a long illness caused by exposure to Agent Orange. But no one thinks about him because of the bad publicity that has resulted from the impostor's falsehoods.

And that goes back to the fraud question. Did they gain something tangible from this?

Prof. TURLEY: That's right. The problem that some of us have with this law is it was clearly designed for people that don't gain in a traditional sense of criminal fraud. And that gets you right into the heart of the First Amendment. And the other thing is that this really isn't pegged by types of people. If you look at who's being prosecuted, they include the judge that you talked about, Michael O'Brien. They also include a newspaper publisher in the journalism field, Darrow "Duke" Tully. And Tully was actually one of the closest associates to John McCain. And Tully...

CONAN: Yes. We remember that story from the campaign. Sure.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah. And Tully claimed that he had 100 combat missions, that he was shot down over Korea, much like John McCain, his friend. A Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Vietnam Cross for gallantry. Turns out he had never even served in the military.

CONAN: The one thing you do tell us, about 50 people have been prosecuted for this. What kind of sentences do they get? Is this a misdemeanor, a felony? What?

Prof. TURLEY: Oh, it's a felony. And you - generally they're getting about six months in terms of their sentences. The - there's a real question about the need, actually, for punishment. One thing, as I say in the column, is that we should really be spending this money to create easy ways to uncover impostors. We have that with the Medal of Honor, because you just go on the site and you can see who won it.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. TURLEY: We need that for other types of medals and we should be able to do that. Once these people are uncovered, they suffer a terrible embarrassment and they become pariahs. I mean, example is Tully. You know, he had to resign as publisher of the Arizona Republic. You know, you had a guy named Dan Weber who actually was a Marine staff sergeant. And he's a good example, by the way, of the sensational appetite. He actually not only made himself a general, he made himself a major general.

CONAN: Two stars.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. One wasn't enough.

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Anyway, Jonathan Turley reports in his piece in the USA Today that in fact this is being challenged on constitutional grounds, so this could come up and we may see an argument about this before the Supreme Court. Jonathan Turley, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. TURLEY: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, with us today in Studio 3A. Again, a link to his USA Today piece at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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