No one disputes that Xavier Alvarez lied about receiving one of the nation’s highest honors. As a newly seated council member of the Three Valley Water District Board in California, he introduced himself to the audience by saying, “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor.”
Alvarez had never even served in the military.
He appears to be the first person charged under a 2005 law — the Stolen Valor Act — that makes it a crime to falsely claim receiving any decoration authorized by Congress for the armed forces.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear Alvarez’s case this term after a lower court struck down the law as unconstitutional. At issue: When does the First Amendment protect false statements?
Alvarez, who has also falsely claimed he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, admitted he lied about receiving the Medal of Honor. But he believes the Stolen Valor Act violates his First Amendment rights.
A lower court agreed, ruling that while the act was “praiseworthy” for its efforts to stop fraudulent claims of valor, it was too broad and represented an “unprecedented” exception to First Amendment guarantees.
“The act concerns us,” wrote Judge Milan D. Smith for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ”because of its potential for setting a precedent, whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie.” The majority said that if the law were deemed constitutional, “there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook.”
The tradition of awarding military honors to recognize valor dates to the Revolutionary War. The Medal of Honor, first established in 1861, is given to a person who “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to step in and hear the case and reverse the lower court ruling.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli says that the act was enacted to deter false claims about receiving a medal.
“The government has a strong – and indeed, compelling — interest in protecting the reputation and integrity of its military honor system against knowingly false claims, ” Verrilli argues in court papers, “and the act appropriately accommodates that interest and First Amendment concerns because it provides ample breathing room for protected speech.”
Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, says this case turns on “whether the government has a right to monitor the truths of our statements in the broadest sense which can sometimes impinge on opinion or advertising puffery.”
Similar cases are currently pending in four other circuit courts.