Free speech or just a lie? Supreme Court takes case on Medal of Honor claim.
The Supreme Court will take the case of a man who lied about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. The question is whether the US can punish him for false statements about his military service.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At issue in the case is to what extent the government may ban and punish false statements of fact concerning someone’s military service.
In 2006, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely represent, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded a military decoration. Offenders face up to a year in prison for falsely claiming receipt of the military’s most significant honors, including the Medal of Honor.
The issue arose in the case of an elected member of a water district board in southern California. In 2007, board member Xavier Alvarez identified himself at a public meeting as a retired US Marine who had been wounded in combat many times and had even received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001,” Mr. Alvarez said at a board meeting. “Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I’m still around.”
None of Alvarez’s claims was true, except his last claim that he was still around. He never served in the Marine Corps or any branch of the military, was never wounded in combat, and has never received a medal of any kind, let alone the nation’s highest military award – the Medal of Honor.
After FBI agents obtained a tape recording of the meeting, federal prosecutors charged Alvarez with two counts of violating the Stolen Valor Act.
Alvarez’s lawyer asked a federal judge to dismiss the charges as a violation of the First Amendment. The judge upheld the charges, ruling that the First Amendment does not protect “knowingly false statements.”
The act is narrowly written to ban only “deliberately false statements concerning a very specific subject matter,” the judge said.
Alvarez pleaded guilty, but reserved the right to appeal the First Amendment issue. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
A panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in a 2-to-1 vote and declared the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional.
The appeals court’s two-judge majority, Judges Milan Smith and Thomas Nelson, said they were concerned that the act might open the door to broader government restrictions on lying.