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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WEBB. Mr. President, I am introducing this bill today in response to a recent Supreme Court holding that invalidated the provisions of what has become known as the Stolen Valor Act of 2006. The Supreme Court decision regarded a place in the Stolen Valor Act that made all false statements about the receipt of military decorations a crime. It states that this act, in the view of the Court:

..... seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.

Basically what the Supreme Court was saying is that we cannot freeze all first amendment rights to make claims about anything in this society unless there was a purpose at the end of it in terms of some sort of a material gain.

I understand and fully accept the Court's holding in this case about the overly broad measures of the Stolen Valor Act of 2006. The legislation I am introducing today is designed to remedy this issue and to bring criminal penalties to those who falsely claim military service or the receipt of unearned awards, medals, and ribbons if these statements were made in pursuit of a tangible benefit or a personal gain.

This legislation is drafted under the guidance of the holding of the Supreme Court in this case. I am a strong believer in the first amendment. I believe it is sacrosanct in our society. I believe the freedom to speak one's mind and to dissent when one opposes a proposal or an issue or a government policy is the very foundation of a truly free society.

At the same time, the very special reverence with the first amendment should be measured against the equally special place our society holds for military service. There are strongly emotional reasons that this is so and there are clearly other tangible benefits that derive from military service.

I would point out something that for many of us seems obvious, but I think it needs to be restated as we consider the Supreme Court decision on the Stolen Valor Act and what the implications are for the legislation I am introducing. The experience of military service, particularly hard combat, is a unique phenomenon in our society. There was a saying when I was in the Marine Corps many years ago that ``For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected shall never know.'' Once someone has been in hard combat, they will never see life around them in the same way again. That doesn't mean they will be worse or particularly better or damaged or in some way empowered, but for the rest of their lives they will truly see a lot of things differently. They will have seen horrible events that strain their emotions, yet increase their ability to understand tragedy and to value human courage in many different stripes and forms. They will have learned to appreciate the inherent contradictions between the pristine intellectual debates about war and the reality of a blood-soaked battlefield where decisions must be made in an instant while human lives hang precariously in the balance.

These lives comprise the burden and the value of military service. Neither the scars nor the lessons disappear when one leaves the battlefield or when one leaves the military. The men and women who step forward to serve carry this burden and share these values for the rest of their lives. Our veterans have given a portion of themselves to our country, and our country has always been good at reciprocating. Our veterans love America and America loves our veterans.

It is important to understand the impact that military service can have on one's life in order to comprehend what a disservice it is for others to pretend to have served. There is an old country song that says ``You've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.'' Those who have not served, have not paid the price that comes with earning that respect. In many cases they are indeed attempting to gain tangible benefits that have been designed to reward and honor military service when they pretend to have served.

Here are a few of those benefits that are in the legislation I am outlining: benefits relating to the military service provided by the Federal Government or a State or local government; the ability to gain employment or professional advancement; financial remuneration, for instance, receiving money for books or writings related to the notion of having served; seeking an effect on the outcome of criminal or civil court proceedings; and seeking to impact one's personal credibility in a political campaign. There are others, but those are clearly tangible benefits that come from stating that one served in the military when one did not.

The journey of this Stolen Valor legislation begins with one individual whom I have known for a very long time. His name is Jug Burkett. He was a Vietnam veteran, like myself. He grew up in the military. His father had a career in the military. He identified this problem many years ago and looked at the impact of those who had claimed to have served or who had claimed to have served in areas where they did not on all the areas I just mentioned.

He wrote a book many years called ``Stolen Valor.'' He had quite a journey with this book and has pursued the issue of honesty and integrity in our legal process and in other ways. It was largely because of Jug Burkett's effort that the Stolen Valor Act was passed in 2006.

I do not believe the Supreme Court decision in any way invalidates the concerns Jug Burkett and others have had. In fact, I think what we are doing with this legislation is to make sure proper concerns are laid out without being overly broad so that any words said in a bar room or someone sitting around personally is not going to have legal authorities measuring every single word anyone says.

We have designed this very specifically with respect to the concerns the Supreme Court laid out. I may be offering this bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. My hope is this amended language could gain the support of all of our colleagues and that we could move this bill quickly, perhaps as an independent bill.

This bill respects the first amendment. It respects military service, and it assures a special place in our society that has always been reserved for those who have stepped forward and gone into harm's way on our behalf.


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