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Editorial: War hero impostors to be shunned, not jailed

FILE - In this April 14 2011 file phoSupreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy testifies Capitol Hill Washington. A divided Supreme

FILE - In this April 14, 2011 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday laid out new standards for criminal plea bargains, saying defense lawyers must do a competent job advising and informing their clients of prosecutors' offers of less prison time for convictions and guilty pleas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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Updated: August 31, 2012 1:45PM

One of the more despicable things a person can do is pretend to be a war hero.

Fortunately, the little liar can be found out pretty quickly, especially if he or she pretends to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, a claim anybody can verify online. And then the creep pays — shunned by the neighbors, reviled by co-workers, dropped by clients. If the miscreant is lucky, his own kids won’t turn on him.

What we cannot do, the Supreme Court wisely ruled Thursday, is pass a law that says pretending to be a Congressional Medal of Honor winner is a crime, punishable by fines and jail time. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the 6-3 majority, the First Amendment “protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.”

The high court did, however, reasonably suggest that a more narrowly drawn law, making it a crime to seek money by claiming to have war medals, might pass constitutional muster. The crime becomes the theft, not the lie, which sounds about right to us.

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito argued for the minority that the California law in question is constitutional because the First Amendment does not protect speech that is false and inflicts “real harm.”

But what amounts to “real harm?” As troublesome as false claims about war medals are to real war heroes — and to their families — Alito is stretching the meaning of the phrase as defined in previous court decisions. Closer to the intent would be the man who claims to be a police officer and physically bullies people — now that would be “real harm.”

Alito clearly feels emotional about this one, and understandably so. “Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor,” he wrote, “but the Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award.”

Yes, the court does hold that every American has the right to make that claim, even when it’s a lie.

But when it is a lie, every other American has the right to mock and shun the liar.

No law against that.

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