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Stolen Valor Act at Supreme Court: Is lying about being a hero a right?

Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to falsely claim to have been awarded a military medal. Xavier Alvarez did that, but the claim harms no one, says his lawyer in his brief to the Supreme Court. The case is being argued Wednesday.

By Staff writer / February 22, 2012

The US Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington, in January. On Wednesday, Xavier Alvarez’s case arrives at the Supreme Court where the justices are being asked to decide whether the Stolen Valor Act is an unconstitutional regulation of free speech or an acceptable effort by the government to punish an alleged liar.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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Washington

When Xavier Alvarez stood up and introduced himself at a local water district meeting in July 2007, he had no idea he was about to commit a federal crime.

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“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” he told the other board members in Pomona, Calif. “I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I’m still around.”

In most social situations, such statements might elicit interested nods, admiring smiles, and perhaps heart-felt thanks for his brave service to the nation.

But it turns out Mr. Alvarez never served a day in the US military, had never been wounded, and – most important – was never awarded the Medal of Honor.

After his false claim was exposed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed up. Alvarez was soon indicted for allegedly violating the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, a law that makes it a federal crime to falsely claim to have been awarded a military medal.

His lawyer attacked the indictment as a violation of the First Amendment, arguing that Americans have a free-speech right to make false and outrageous claims about themselves without facing criminal prosecution from a government truth squad.

A federal judge upheld the indictment, but a US appeals court panel reversed.

On Wednesday, Alvarez’s case arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the justices are being asked to decide whether the Stolen Valor Act is an unconstitutional regulation of free speech or an acceptable effort by the government to punish an alleged liar.

The high court has never directly addressed the issue of lying about military awards, and it is not clear how the justices may decide it.

The Supreme Court has recognized a number of categories of speech that are unworthy of full First Amendment protection. They include obscenity, libel and defamation, incitement to imminent harm, and fraud. In each of those areas the underlying speech causes a concrete injury.

Critics of the Stolen Valor Act say it requires no underlying injury. Any false statement claiming receipt of a medal may be punished. These critics suggest the best remedy for such false statements is not criminal punishment but more speech, particularly truthful speech to expose the lie.

The Obama administration is urging the court to uphold the restriction as a valid regulation of a discrete kind of false speech that lacks significant constitutional value.

Alvarez counters that the court has never before declared that such false statements are unworthy of constitutional protection. His lawyer says the government’s position marks a radical departure from free speech principles that could lead to sanctions against those who exaggerate, use hyperbole, or engage in satire.

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