Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Stolen Valor, Purloined Patriotism

In a decision last week, the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, making it a crime to claim unearned military honors, as a California man did in falsely representing himself to be a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

The majority decided such statements cannot be criminalized unless they involve “a legally cognizable harm” and must be allowed “if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views.”

In a dissent, Justice Alito argued that such lies damage “the signal given out by the actual awards...and this diluting effect harms the military by hampering its efforts to foster morale and esprit de corps...the very integrity of the military awards system.”

On Independence Day, the notion of “systemic damage” to the country raised by a conservative justice prompts a broader question about what his Tea Party admirers have been doing to the notions of patriotism.

In Illinois, for the latest example, a Congressman who has never served in the military disparages his challenger, a double amputee who lost both her legs in Iraq when insurgents hit her helicopter, by complaining “that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.”

Not all self-congratulating Tea Party “patriots” are so ludicrous, but they have stood on its head the love of country being celebrated today by verbally wrapping themselves in the flag to exclude all those who disagree with them.

There may be no legal remedy to prevent such harm being done to “the morale and esprit de corps” of Americans, but on this of all days, it’s important to recognize that the First Amendment protects not only traditional American disagreements but even the free speech of those who would purloin patriotism from the rest of us.

Set off the fireworks and fly the flags for that.

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