Forrest Gump and the First Amendment

forest_gump_vietnam.jpg

Tom Hanks, as Forrest Gump, didn’t really win the Medal of Honor. Is it a crime to say he did?

Of all the things you can say in this country under the First Amendment, there’s still a law on the books that says you can’t say you were awarded a military honor when you weren’t.

The Supreme Court today said it will review the law passed by Congress — the Stolen Valor Act. It calls for a fine and/or six-month jail term for anyone who “falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” It increases to a year in prison for lying about a Purple Heart, a Medal of Honor or another particularly high honor.

Filed in 2005, it passed the House of Representatives in December 2006 on a voice vote. No member of House, therefore, could be on the record one way or the other. That followed a September 2006 voice vote in the Senate that similarly avoided a record for any senator on the question.

As with most First Amendment issues, the question isn’t whether people who lie about their medals and service diminish the contributions of those who actually served. They do. The question is whether there’s a danger in giving the government the authority to regulate lies, and whether lies as a rule do enough damage to be constitutionally unprotected.

“”The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time,” Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith wrote when his panel overturned the law last year, in the case of a water district board member in California who claimed he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor (Read decision).

“The government’s approach would give it license to interfere significantly with our private and public conversations,” he wrote. “Placing the presumption in favor of regulation…would steadily undermine the foundations of the First Amendment… How, based on the principle proposed by the government, would one distinguish the relative value of lies about one’s receipt of a military decoration from the relative value of any other false statement of fact.”

And that’s the question, too; if this lie can be regulate, what other speech might soon follow?

The decision included references to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, and even a scene from Forrest Gump as examples of speech that might be threatened under the law.

But in a dissent to the decision overturning the law, Judge Jay Bybee said not all speech is entitled to First Amendment protection — defamation, for example — but Stewart’s, Colbert’s, and Forrest Gump’s are.

“I must, that the Act will be applied with some modicum of common sense, it does not reach satire or imaginative expression,” the judge said.

  • JackU

    My initial reaction, to the opening question is I believe answered by Judge Bybee’s comment. Forrest Gump doesn’t come into question. He is a fictional character and the fictional character was awarded the Medal of Honor. The fact that Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump in the movie doesn’t change anything. Since I suspect that the character wins the Medal of Honor in the novel (which predates the movie by 8 years) would the novel, a recognized work of fiction, then be subject to censorship? Let’s hope not.

  • kennedy

    I am assuming that this does not apply to fictional characters.

    I can see a basis for legal action againist those claiming ‘stolen valor’. For example, a patron at a bar buys a drink for a stranger because the stranger claims to have been awarded a Purple Heart. The ‘valor stealer’ benefits from claiming false credentials. In a documented legal agreement, this would be a clear violation. The reason this argument is a bit fuzzy is because interpersonal relations are generally covered by rules of ettiquette and not a legal contract.

    Would legal rules apply if someone claimed a friendship with the lead singer in order to get some affection at a concert?

  • Bob Collins

    So to recap: You can stand on the corner near a funeral for a soldier and shout “god hates fags” and hold signs that say the soldier’s death is god’s revenge.

    But you cannot stand on the same corner and say “I was awarded a Purple heart.”

  • kennedy

    What if the fake Purple Heart recipient was also holding an anti-gay sign? The medal implies credentials. Faking one is like lying on a resume.

    Is it wrong? Sure. Is it a prosecutable offense? I’m glad I’m not on the supreme court.