Claim of a constitutional right to lie about military heroism reconsidered in U.S. v. Alvarez
The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday regarding the “Stolen Valor Act,” a law adopted by Congress that makes it a crime to falsely claim to have been awarded medals for heroism or exceptional service by the U. S. military.
At issue in the case of United States v. Alvarez is whether intentionally lying about receiving military medals is protected under the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. The high court will review a 2010 ruling by the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that declared the law unconstitutional. The Tenth Circuit recently disagreed with the Ninth and upheld the law in a case from Colorado.
The August 2010 decision by a divided Ninth Circuit panel overturned the conviction of a California man who falsely claimed to have received the Medal of Honor, ruling that the law was overly broad and criminalized constitutionally protected speech. The court’s 2-1 decision, authored by Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., states, “As presently drafted, the Act is facially invalid under the First Amendment, and was unconstitutionally applied to make a criminal out of a man who was proven to be nothing more than a liar . . . .”
The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the case to encourage a precedent-setting decision overturning the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. The Legion of Valor, an organization of soldiers, sailors, and aviators awarded the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, or the Air Force Cross, joined the Foundation as co-amicus.
Xavier Alvarez was convicted in 2008 for violating the Act, which punishes as a misdemeanor a false claim to “have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States . . . .” The law provides a fine or imprisonment for up to six months for those convicted. The prison term increases to one year for those falsely claiming to have received the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, or Purple Heart.
A year earlier, Alvarez, who was a member of a Pomona-area water board, announced during a public meeting that he was a retired Marine who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism. A tape recording of his statement was sent to the FBI, which found that Alvarez had never served in any branch of the military and had never received any medal. Following his conviction, Alvarez was sentenced to probation and a $5000 fine.
Alvarez appealed, arguing that Congress did not have the authority to make lying about receiving a medal a crime. Following the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Alvarez, federal prosecutors appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court.
In a scholarly amicus curiae brief, the Foundation argues that earlier Supreme Court decisions have recognized exceptions to the Constitution’s protection of free speech, particularly for lies. Intentionally false statements that constitute slander, libel, or fraud are not protected, for example. The CJLF brief notes that those who lie about receiving awards for valor diminish the value of the awards for those who were legitimately recognized for heroism and for those who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country.
America’s first military decorations were authorized in 1782 by General George Washington, who also ordered, “Should any who are not entitled to the honors, have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.” The argument will be held on Washington’s birthday.
“There is no constitutional right to lie,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “Congress is well within its authority to punish those who dishonor our nation’s genuine heroes,” he added.
The Foundation’s brief in this case is available at:
Foundation arguments helped win five United States Supreme Court decisions benefitting law enforcement and public safety during the Court’s previous term.