A divided Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a law that made it a crime to lie about having earned a military decoration, saying that the act was an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
The case arose from the prosecution of Xavier Alvarez under the Stolen Valor Act, a law signed in 2006 that made it a crime for a person to falsely claim, orally or in writing, “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Mr. Alvarez, an elected member of the board of directors of a water district in Southern California, said at a public meeting in 2007 that he had received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, after being wounded in action as a Marine.
All of those claims were lies, his lawyers later conceded.
Charged with violating the law, Mr. Alvarez argued that his remarks were protected speech under the First Amendment. The trial judge rejected his defense, saying the First Amendment does not apply to statements the speaker knows to be false.
But in 2010, a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, reversed that decision, saying that if the law were upheld, “there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook.”
On Thursday, a six-justice majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court, ruling that the law was overly broad and posed a threat to First Amendment rights by criminalizing speech, even when it was knowingly false.
Though the government has a clear interest in protecting the integrity of military honors, the court said, the Obama administration had failed to demonstrate in its defense of the Stolen Valor Act how Mr. Alvarez’s falsehoods undermined the awards system.
By James Dao
New York Times
June 29, 2012