The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether freedom of speech included a right to lie about military honors.
In an important 1st Amendment case from Southern California, the justices voted to hear the government’s defense of the Stolen Valor Act, a 5-year-old law that makes it a crime to falsely claim to have earned medals for service in the armed forces.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year struck down the law, saying the government cannot act as the “truth police” to punish lies that cause no direct harm.
“The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time,” wrote Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. in a 2-1 decision. “Given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements.”
But U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr., in his appeal, said “knowingly false” statements deserved little protection under the 1st Amendment. He pointed to laws against fraud that punished those who made false promises to obtain money, or laws against defamation that punished those who made false and hurtful claims that damaged a person’s reputation.
Banning false claims to medals and decorations is crucial to “safeguarding the military honors system,” he said.
The court said it would hear the case of United States vs. Alvarez early next year and rule by summer.
The case began in 2007, when a newly elected board member to the Three Valleys Municipal Water District based in Claremont introduced himself as a military veteran. “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” Xavier Alvarez said. “Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”
None of the claims was true. Alvarez never served in the military. They were not his first phony claims. He said he had played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, worked as a police officer, rescued the U.S. ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis and married a Mexican starlet.
In a separate case, he was prosecuted and sent to prison for insurance fraud.
Acting on a citizen’s complaint, the FBI obtained a recording of the water board meeting where Alvarez claimed to have received the Medal of Honor. He was said to be the first person indicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act, which forbids falsely representing yourself “verbally or in writing” as having been awarded a military medal or decoration that was authorized by Congress.
Alvarez contended the law was unconstitutional, but he pleaded guilty when his motion was denied. He was given a $5,000 fine and three years’ probation. He then appealed to the 9th Circuit.