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.
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“We cannot adopt the government’s approach as the general rule for false factual speech without turning customary First Amendment analysis on its head,” Judge Smith wrote.Skip to next paragraph
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He said the government’s approach was inconsistent with maintenance of a robust and uninhibited marketplace of ideas.
“The right to speak and write whatever one chooses – including to some degree, worthless, offensive, and demonstrable untruths – without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment,” Smith wrote.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, in a comment about the case, said it raised the specter of government censorship by “the truth police.” He noted that “white lies, exaggerations, and deceptions … are an integral part of human intercourse."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Jay Bybee said that as a general rule the Supreme Court has not extended free speech protections to false statements of fact. He noted there are some exceptions to the general rule but that prohibiting lies about the military honors one has received does not inhibit or deter protected forms of expression.
Very few individuals are likely to mistakenly claim to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, he said.
“The majority believes that when the court has said that ‘false statements of fact’ are unprotected by the First Amendment, what the court actually meant was that defamation is unprotected by the First Amendment,” Judge Bybee wrote. He said the majority’s approach inverts the high court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.
“All things considered, Alvarez’s self-introduction was neither a slip of the tongue nor a theatrical performance; it was simply a lie,” Bybee said.
“Alvarez’s knowingly false statement is excluded from the limited spheres of protection carved out by the Supreme Court,” he wrote. “It is therefore not entitled to constitutional protection.”
The Ninth Circuit majority was not persuaded. “If the act is constitutional under the analysis proffered by Judge Bybee, then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway,” Judge Smith wrote in the majority opinion.
“The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time,” Smith added.
The case is US v. Alvarez (11-210). It will likely be heard by the high court next year with a decision announced by late June.