The American South is a region strongly informed by notions of honor, service and commitment to patriotic ideals. This is not to say the people of other regions don't embrace those same things, just that it's somehow more readily apparent here. One way we see this manifest is a traditional overrepresentation of southern military enlistees. Some of this owes to the fact that people from rural areas enlist in disproportionately high numbers relative to their more urban kin. At least some of the variation is doubtless attributable to southern traditions. We are used to standing for something — admittedly a variety of things — but holding our ground seems to come to us more easily.

The American South is a region strongly informed by notions of honor, service and commitment to patriotic ideals. This is not to say the people of other regions don’t embrace those same things, just that it’s somehow more readily apparent here. One way we see this manifest is a traditional overrepresentation of southern military enlistees. Some of this owes to the fact that people from rural areas enlist in disproportionately high numbers relative to their more urban kin. At least some of the variation is doubtless attributable to southern traditions. We are used to standing for something — admittedly a variety of things — but holding our ground seems to come to us more easily.

With this as preface, it’s worthy to note that the United State Supreme Court heard arguments this week in the case of U. S. v. Alvarez. The case centers on the Constitutionality of the 2005, Stolen Valor Act, a law that makes it a crime to falsely say that one has been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States.

While serving as a public official in California, the defendant, Xavier Alvarez, introduced himself to an audience by saying, “I’m a retired Marine for 25 years. I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Alvarez has never served in the military.

Alvarez’s federal public defender, Jonathan D. Libby, acknowledges that his client is a liar. Even so, he contends the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment.

As Libby told the court, “The Stolen Valor Act criminalizes pure speech in the form of bare falsity, a mere telling of a lie. It doesn’t matter whether the lie was told in a public meeting or in a private conversation with a friend or family member.”

Predictably, the challenge has raised the ire of several organizations. The American Legion, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, the Legion of Valor, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups with strong military ties have all filed briefs with court urging it to uphold the law.

The solicitor general of the United States, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., stated the government’s position, “The honor system (which these awards represent) is about identifying the attributes, the essence, of what we want in our service men and women — courage, sacrifice, love of country, willingness to put your life on the line for your comrades… It’s what George Washington said in 1782 when he set up the honor system. It’s designed to cherish a valorous ambition in soldiers and to encourage every species of military merit.”

Several Justices appeared to agree, while maintaining that it was difficult to reconcile the law with the First Amendment. As Libby said, “There is a significant difference between a criminal sanction that puts someone in prison versus simply exposing them for what they are, which is a liar.”

Repugnant as Alvarez’s actions may be, we have a fairly well established legal tradition in America that protects a lot of undesirable things: profanity; pornography; depictions of gratuitous violence; racist and otherwise hateful speech; flag burning… Somehow we manage to permit repellant purveyors of social detritus to have their say. We don’t have to like it. Indeed it’s probably best that the tension of tastes and ideals exists, but we should be willing to let idiots be idiots. As the old saying goes “no man is a total loss, lest he serve as a bad example for the rest of us.”