Man Who Wore Fake Military Medals Challenges Stolen Valor Law

PHOTO Michael Patrick McManus was arrested and charged wiht violating the Stolen Valor Act

At a time when returning soldiers are regarded as national heroes and the number of war dead continues to rise, lying about medals affixed to a military uniform is seen as a lie so foul, it is criminal.

It is being challenged now in federal court. Xavier Alvarez, a California man convicted in 2007 of falsely claiming to be a decorated Marine, is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction and rule the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. A ruling could come at any time.

VIDEO: A Texas man is caught posing as a highly-decorated soldier at a public event.
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Most legal experts think he will lose. But he argues that his right to free speech -- even his right to lie -- is protected by the First Amendment.

"It's no more free speech than yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater is free speech," Georgetown University law professor Gary Solis told ABCNews.com.

Alvarez was a member of a California municipal water board when he claimed at a 2007 meeting that he was a former Marine with 25 years service and that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded by the U.S. government. He is now in prison on an unrelated conviction for insurance fraud.

"I'm not going to defend what Mr. Alvarez said. It was wrong," Deputy Federal Public Defender Jonathan Libby said. "The First Amendment is supposed to mean something."

Upholding the Stolen Valor Act, Libby said, basically gives Congress the right to decide which lies are punishable as crimes. Alvarez didn't commit perjury, he said, and he didn't use his claims to collect veterans affairs benefits. His crime hurt no one, Libby argues.

"People tell lies about all sorts of things all the time," Libby said. "And the First Amendment certainly protects the right to lie."

Solis, a former Marine prosecutor and a two-tour Vietnam veteran, said lying about military service is an affront to anybody who has proudly worn a U.S. military uniform.

"It's repulsive. It makes me want to punch someone," he said.

People who lie about military medals are "attempting to gain recognition and personal favor and tangibly better treatment on the basis of the valor of others who have sacrificed greatly, perhaps with their lives," he said.

Stolen Valor Frauds Often Also Seek Financial Benefits

To reduce the matter of stolen valor to a freedom of speech argument, Solis said, is "not only ludicrous, but insulting to the memory of those who have earned what gents like this try to take for free."

One judge has already quashed Alvarez's plea. In a 2008 decision denying Alvarez's motion to dismiss his conviction, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California denied Alvarez's motion to dismiss his conviction on the basis that the Stolen Valor Act violated his First Amendment rights.

"It appears to be merely a lie intended to impress others present at the meeting," Klausner wrote in his decision. "Such lies are not protected by the Constitution."

Doug Sterner, an Army veteran whose wife's college policy analysis led to the writing of the Stolen Valor Act, has been tracking fake military claims for years.

He gets hundreds of phony applications each year for the Hall of Valor, an online collection of military citations and awards. Though the Hall of Valor was intended to document the heroic tales of America's service men and women, he now also uses it as a platform to report possible violations of the Stolen Valor Act.

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