Lies About Military Medals Can’t Be Punished, Court Says

People can’t be prosecuted for lying about receiving a military medal, the U.S. Supreme Court said, invoking free-speech rights to strike down a federal law intended to protect the integrity of armed services awards.

The justices, voting 6-3, today invalidated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which punished violators with as much as a year in prison. The case tested the extent of the protection for false statements under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

Comparing the Stolen Valor Act to George Orwell’s novel “1984,” about a futuristic totalitarian state, Kennedy wrote, “Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.”

The case before the justices involved Xavier Alvarez, one of the first people charged under the law. In 2007, 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.

Probation Sentence

He was charged with 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.

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

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said the majority erred by protecting the right to lie in a way that may cause harm to the U.S. system of military honors.

“The right to free speech does not protect false factual statements that inflict real harm and serve no legitimate interest,” Alito wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Limited Protection

The Obama administration, defending the law before the court, had said previous Supreme Court cases established that false statements are entitled only to limited First Amendment protection. Twenty states backed that position, citing laws criminalizing bomb hoaxes and false impersonation.

Alvarez contended that the court has never carved out an exception to the First Amendment for lies. He and his supporters said the government must at least show that someone was harmed by a false statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the decision a victory for free speech.

“The First Amendment reserves to individual citizens, not the government, the right to separate what is true from what is false, and to decide what ideas to introduce into private conversation and public debate,” Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, said in a statement. “Today’s decision is an important reaffirmation of those crucial rights.”

Veterans groups such as the American Legion said the court failed to protect the integrity of the military’s system of awarding honors.

Favoring Liars

“The court struck the constitutional balance in favor of liars and against the millions of military service members and veterans who have fought to defend the Constitution,” Aaron Streett, counsel for the American Legion, said in a statement.

Even with the court’s ruling, the issue may not be over.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, suggested a more narrowly tailored statute might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

“The government has provided no convincing explanation as to why a more finely tailored statute would not work,” Breyer wrote.

A bill pending in Congress attempts to do that. The Stolen Valor Act of 2011, introduced last year by Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, would revise the statute to forbid misrepresenting military service “with intent to obtain anything of value.”

That bill awaits action by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a similar measure awaits committee action in the House.

In addition, federal law already prohibits wearing a military medal without authorization, under a 1923 statute.

The Senate bill is S. 1728.

The case is United States v. Alvarez, 11-210.

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