Lies About Military Medals Get U.S. Supreme Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Constitution’s free speech clause protects people who falsely claim to have been awarded military medals.

The justices today said they will hear arguments on the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, which punishes people with as much as a year in prison for lying about receiving a medal. A federal appeals court declared the law unconstitutional, and President Barack Obama’s administration is appealing.

The law “plays a vital role in safeguarding the integrity and efficacy of the government’s military honors system,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued in the administration’s bid for high court review.

The case before the justices involves Xavier Alvarez, one of the first people charged under the law. In 2005 Alvarez was serving as an elected member of the local water board in Pomona, California, when he said at a board meeting that he had served 25 years in the Marines and had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In truth, he had never served in the military.

He was indicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act and pleaded guilty, while reserving his right to appeal on First Amendment grounds. Alvarez was sentenced to three years of probation, a $5,000 fine and 416 hours of community service. A divided federal appeals court in San Francisco threw out the guilty plea.

45 Cases

Prosecutors have filed charges under the Stolen Valor act in 45 cases since the law was enacted, Alvarez said in court papers.

The Obama administration says previous Supreme Court cases establish that false statements are entitled to only limited First Amendment protection. Alvarez says that’s not the case, contending that the court has never carved out a First Amendment exception for lies.

“Criminalizing the telling of a lie about oneself -- even a lie which might tend to tarnish the reputation of a military honor -- is simply beyond the limited exceptions to the constitutional dictate that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,’” Alvarez argued, quoting from the First Amendment.

The case, which the court will consider and decide in the first half of next year, is United States v. Alvarez, 11-210.

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