Stolen Valor Act -A Personal Intangible Asset…

Michael D. Moberly July 10, 2012

The Stolen Valor Act made it a crime for someone to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals.  Upon conviction, the Act imposes enhanced penalties if the Congressional Medal of Honor was falsely claimed.

Respectfully, whether deceptions, lies, misrepresentations, and/or deceits, etc., have to do with stolen (war-commendation) valor, or stolen trust (of a business leader, a product, a process, or a service) all are powerful, influential, and valuable intangible (non-physical) assets which humans can develop, hold, apply, or squander.

Once the value that we – others attach to the (personal) intangible asset of honesty erodes, diminishes, and/or is undermined, not once, but successively, by ourselves or others who wish us reputational harm, it becomes increasingly difficult to retrieve, recoup, and resurrect to its original – trusted state.

A particular ‘stolen valor’ case, United States v. Alvarez (567 U.S. 709) was argued before SCOTUS on February 22, 2012, and opinion rendered on June 28, 2012.

Court records show that in 2007 Alvarez attended his first (public) meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board in 2007 (a governmental entity in Claremont, California) wherein Mr. Alvarez introduced himself as follows…

“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”  (SCOTUS in its June 28th ruling, described this statement as ‘a pathetic attempt to gain respect’.)  Mr. Alvarez subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of falsely claiming that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Court records stipulate that Alvarez’ deception did not seem to have been made to secure employment, financial benefits, or admission to privileges reserved for only those who had legitimately earned and been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH).

Lower court testimony revealed that lying had become a habit of Mr. Alvarez, as evidenced by his lying about (a.) playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, and (b.) that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when Alverez lied by announcing he held the Con­gressional Medal of Honor, he ventured onto new ground, because that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, (8 USC. §§704 (b), (c).

Even though Alvarez admitted guilt (through his legal counsel) he reserved his right to appeal, claiming the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently ruled the Act to be invalid under the First Amendment, which the SCOTUS affirmed on June 28th, stating the Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.

So, where-ever one believes they may exist on lie, deception, white lie, or truth continuum, Dr. Dan Ariely (Duke University) suggests there is a larger potential cost of (continued) deception, e.g.,

When individuals engage in dishonest and/or deceptive acts, Ariely notes, it frequently influences them to assume – suspect others also engaged in similar acts of dishonesty and deception.

This assumption can manifest (for people engaged in deception) as an absence of trust in one’s friends, colleagues, coworkers, and acquaintances.

My initial interpretation of this SCOTUS ruling was (the Court is) essentially sanctioning lying via the First Amendment.

Content-based restrictions on speech (as described in the Stolen Valor Act), i.e., a person’s false utterance of being awarded war-combat related commendations, have been permitted only for a few categories of speech in which the Government is granted a preventative and/or deterrent power, e.g., incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, ala ‘fighting words’, child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting a grave and imminent threat.

Noticeably absent from these (historic) categories are exception for falsely statements-claims one is the recipient of a war-combat related commendation, including the CMH.

Fundamental constitutional principles, SCOTUS ruled, ‘require that laws enacted to honor war – military combat veterans must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought, even though its speech that can disparage, or attempts to steal honor that belongs to those who fought for this Nation in battle. Falsity alone, SCOTUS ruled, may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment.

SCOTUS’ opinion went on to state ‘should the Court have per­mitted the Government to decree Alvarez’ speech to be a criminal offense, it would have endorsed government’s authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable and thereby allowing the government to have power with no clear limiting principle’.  I agree.

I remain puzzled however, about the motives – intentions of people who engage in ‘valor theft’, which prompted me to review Dr. Ariely’s book again, ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves’.

Could it be, Ariely poses, that when people lie publicly (and repeatedly), their lie acts as an achievement marker, which in turn becomes a reminder of their false achievement and helps cement that fiction as part of their life, e.g., repeated expressions of a false achievement can contribute to further internalizing one’s self-deception.  Without trust, Ariely notes, relationships and interactions become more difficult and stressful.

An illustration of this is found in a Seinfeld (TV sitcom) episode in which Jerry has agreed to a polygraph examination to determine whether he is a regular viewer of a particular TV program, which he had adamantly denied. In preparation for this polygraph, George (a friend of Jerry’s) known for his ability to misrepresent the truth, informed Jerry that ‘it’s not a lie if you believe it’.

So, as Ariely reveals – describes in his research, where-ever one senses they may reside on the lie – truth continuum, there is a larger potential cost of (continued, persistent) deception.

This, and countless other examples, beg the question; are some people more prone – receptive to uttering – believing their own fibs, than others?  Probably. One need not look far to witness ample evidence.

Each post @ ‘Business Intangible Asset Blog’ is experientially researched, authored, and produced by Michael D. Moberly, principle-founder of kpstrat, to provide readers with reliable perspectives and nuanced insights to business things intangible as a business intangible asset strategist and risk mitigator.



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