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.
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“For good or bad, right or wrong, everyone lies. Xavier Alvarez is no exception. He told a bunch of whoppers,” wrote Alvarez’s lawyer, Deputy Federal Public Defender Jonathan Libby, in his brief to the court.Skip to next paragraph
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“Exaggerated anecdotes, barroom braggadocio, and cocktail party puffery have always been thought to be beyond the realm of government reach and to pass without fear of criminal punishment,” Mr. Libby said.
The US Solicitor General’s Office disagrees, arguing that the Stolen Valor Act is aimed at achieving an important government objective and that it is narrowly focused to achieve that objective.
“The government employs military honors to convey a message to the public that the recipient has been endorsed by the government as part of a select group,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote in his brief to the court. “The aggregate effect of false claims undermines that purpose … by diluting the medals’ message of prestige and honor.”
The law seeks to punish only those who knowingly make a false claim of having been awarded a medal, Mr. Verrilli said. A person is unlikely to make such a claim out of confusion or by mistake, he said.
“Content-based restrictions on false factual statements are consistent with the First Amendment if they are supported by a strong government interest and provide adequate ‘breathing space’ for fully protected speech,” Verrilli’s brief said.
Alvarez’s lawyer, Mr. Libby, openly admits his client is a liar. But he says Alvarez was pilloried in his community as an “idiot” and a “jerk” after his false statements were exposed.
Libby says Americans lie all the time in social situations and that if his client loses his case, the government may soon be investigating the veracity of a broader range of facetious statements.
“Xavier Alvarez lied. He lied when he claimed to have played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings. He lied when he claimed to be married to a Mexican starlet whose appearance in public caused paparazzi to swoon. He lied when he claimed to be an engineer. He lied when he claimed to have rescued the American ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, and when he said that he was shot going back to grab the American flag,” Libby said in his brief.
What’s the harm, Libby asked in his brief. There is no evidence that anyone relied on Alvarez’s false claims about hockey or military heroics.
“The government’s interest in protecting the reputation of military medals is legitimate, but not compelling,” Libby said. “False claimants cannot tarnish the reputation of medal winners.”
“The government seeks to create a new test – completely unmoored from this court’s precedents,” Libby said.
“Falsehoods are valuable for innumerable reasons: in refining truth, in expressing personal autonomy, and in greasing the wheels of social interaction,” Libby said. “More than that, there is a realm of harmless prattle and puffery generally considered beyond government control.”
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