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The gay waitress who says she was discriminated against may have lied. Now what?
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 10:14 AM
Perhaps you saw this incredibly viral story. A gay waitress in New Jersey is stiffed on a tip. On the receipt, the customer explains that they can't pay her because they "do not agree with her lifestyle."
It's easy to see why it was popular. It's a story that's very easy to tell (it's a one-panel story - you just need the picture of the receipt) and it's emotionally uncomplicated. It's bald bigotry, and reading it, you feel outraged.
But now, a couple has told NBC that they were the waitress's customers and that her story isn't true. They say the check is a forgery and that they have proof: their copy of the receipt plus their credit card bill.
There's two interesting stories here. One is about how we're living in a moment where there are a lot of people competing to find and disseminate viral human interest stories, and very few people in a position to fact-check those stories.
The other story is about the legal ramifications when someone allegedly commits fraud, not for money but for attention. The original waitress in the story is a woman named Dayna Morales. When Morales stepped forward, people wanted to give her money, but she directed them to donate instead to the Wounded Warrior Project, a veterans service organization which isn't affiliated with Morales.
So if Morales is, in fact, lying, she hasn't benefitted financially from her fraud. Friend-of-OTM and George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley says that legally, this case reminds him of the Stolen Valor Act. The law made it illegal for someone to lie about having won war medals. The Supreme Court struck it down, saying it was an unconstitutional abridgment of freedom of speech. Part of the argument against punishing people who lie to seem heroic is that simply revealing their lie to the public is usually enough punishment. Here's Turley:
Instead of benefitting socially by claiming to be a decorated hero, she allegedly made herself into a social hero under false pretenses. While we have seen various cases of prosecuted fraud for people collecting money under false claims that they are dying or have lost a loved one (here and here and here and hereand here and here), these people are usually found to have pocketed the money. There is the question of whether she had any travel paid for by the media for hotels or flights etc. That would constitute a benefit for establishing the elements of crimes like fraud. Any book deals or movie deals, including early rights payments, would obviously be sufficient.
In the end, if the story is proven true, Morales could walk with simply the ignobility of the disclosure of the hoax. I have written before that such social isolation and condemnation is sufficient in Stolen Valor cases where no money was accepted. For people who want to be heroes, the status as a social pariah comes is a heavy sanction. She allegedly not only undermined the claims of true discrimination victims but used the fight of equality to benefit herself. Morales would not require a criminal charge to feel the judgment of society in such a case.