Court: Lies about military medals protected speech

  • Article by: DAVID LERMAN
  • Bloomberg News
  • June 28, 2012 - 10:52 PM

WASHINGTON - People can't be prosecuted for lying about receiving a military medal, the 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 to 3, on Thursday 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 individuals charged under the law that made it a crime for a person to falsely claim, orally or in writing, "to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States."

In 2007, Alvarez was serving as an elected member of the local water board in Pomona, Calif., 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. He had never served in the military.

He was charged 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.

The Obama administration, defending the law before the court, had said previous Supreme Court cases establish 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 argued that the government at least must show that someone was harmed by a false statement.

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