We are all protected by the First Amendment – even the bad guys

By Sarah Stubbs

The First Amendment is something that is near and dear to me – as it should be, since I’m a journalist – but when I read the news about the federal court ruling in California that said it was constitutional under the First Amendment for a former Marine to wear medals of honor he did not earn, I was a little unsettled.

If you missed the story, Elven Joe Swisher, a former Marine who fought in the Korean War and is now in his 70s and retired, has been living a lie for quite some time. Swisher had been wearing prestigious, honorable military medals he did not earn, such as the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.

Since 2006, Swisher has been under fire for this fraudulence. Up until then, he was receiving benefits for the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed from battle. The government stopped supporting his PTSD when they learned that his medals were not earned, according to a Jan. 13 New York Times article.

The decision that was finally made on Jan. 13 – after years of trial and different charges due to changes in the Stolen Valor act – claimed that Swisher’s choice to wear those medals was protected because of the right to free speech.

In one of the English classes I am taking this semester, Social Dimensions of Language with Nicole Diederich, PhD., we are discussing the First Amendment, censorship, and banned books. Many of our class discussions have centered on the general subjectivity the First Amendment creates as well as who gets to decide what is protected as free speech and what is not.

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Debate about what is truly obscene or unacceptable and should not be protected under the First Amendment has been widely discussed across our country almost since its inception.

I am personally under the belief that if what you are choosing to proclaim as your truth (verbally, visually, what have you) does not put anyone at risk to be a victim of violence or prejudice, you should be able to proclaim whatever you want.

Now, I think that this is a nice definition, but then we must consider morals and the truth. Shouldn’t we value the truth above all else?

Just as free speech is often considered subjective, morals can be viewed as subjective, too.

What is morally incorrect to me might not be morally incorrect to everyone else, especially to those from different cultures.

But cultural differences aside, I think it is safe to assume that it is shared belief across humanity that truth is a virtue and to live honestly is to live well.

We might have different ethics and values across the globe and even within our own communities, but I bet that if you asked everyone in the world what a decent human being is like, a lot of the lists of qualities would probably match up.

Although the First Amendment allows Swisher to essentially live a lie, and he should probably be highly embarrassed about his reputation, his acts should not be censored by the First Amendment.

Swisher’s decisions are not putting anyone in harm’s way, and they are not keeping anyone from earning awards the way they are supposed to be earned, but when I apply my moral compass to this case, I know that he is in the wrong.

Wearing medals he did not earn is blatantly disrespectful to the Armed Forces and the United States. It is especially disrespectful to veterans who have earned military honors with honesty and integrity.

One of the medals he chose to claim as hard-earned is the Purple Heart. The Purple Heart is only ever awarded to those who are wounded or died in battle. It is not an award that any military member is on a mission to obtain, but those who do earn a Purple Heart are respected for the sacrifices that they made in battle. Swisher’s choice to wear that medal like he earned it is a slap in the face to veterans who did make those sacrifices.

Even though this is case is so strange and sad, it should not be exempt from the protection of the First Amendment. Just because something is Constitutional, does not necessarily mean that it is right.

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