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Stolen Valor Act ruled unconstitutional

Friday, June 29th, 2012

We noted in April that the Supreme Court had agreed this past year to consider the Constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, a law passed by Congress in 2006 that made it a crime to lie about being awarded a military honor, such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor.

In addition to releasing its opinion on the Affordable Health Care Act yesterday, the Supreme Court also issued its decision in United States v. Alvarez, deciding that the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. ABC News has more:

The case started in 2007 when California man Xavier Alvarez was convicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2006–federal legislation that made it illegal for people to claim to have won or to wear military medals or ribbons they did not earn. Alvarez had publicly claimed to have won the country’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, but was later revealed to have never served in the military at all.

Alvarez was sentenced to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service, but he and his lawyer appealed the decision, saying that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional–essentially that it violates a person’s right to lie.

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

In its argument before the Supreme Court, the government said that such specific lies fall under a special category of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment–when the speech could do harm.

“False claims make the public skeptical of all claims to have received awards, and they inhibit the government’s efforts to ensure that the armed services and the public perceive awards as going only to the most deserving few,” the government said.

In its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court justices said today that as written, the act is too broad and ignores whether the liar is trying to materially gain anything through his or her false statement, which would be more akin to fraud.

“The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his written opinion. “… [T]he sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment. Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home.”

Justice Alito, writing in a dissent jointed by Justices Scalia and Thomas, disagreed with Kennedy’s assessment:

Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award. The Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which was enacted to stem an epidemic of false claims about military decorations. These lies, Congress reasonably concluded, were undermining our country’s system of military honors and inflicting real harm on actual medal recipients and their families.

Building on earlier efforts to protect the military awards system, Congress responded to this problem by crafting a narrow statute that presents no threat to the freedom of speech. The statute reaches only knowingly false statements about hard facts directly within a speaker’s personal knowledge. These lies have no value in and of themselves, and proscribing them does not chill any valuable speech.

Read the rest of ABC’s summary here, and read the Court’s opinion here.