In a recent 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Stolen Valor Act, 18 U.S.C. § 704, which makes it a crime to make false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment Right to Freedom of Speech.
In this case, Xavier Alvarez, the respondent, lied when he announced at a public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board that he held a Congressional Medal of Honor. Specifically, Alvarez stated, “I'm a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.” His statements were not true and he made these statements in an attempt to gain respect and not for financial privileges or benefits.
At the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Alvarez was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about the Congressional Medal of Honor at the meeting. On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a divided panel found the Act invalid under the First Amendment and reversed the conviction. After a rehearing en banc was denied, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Before the Court, the Government argued that its interest is related to the integrity of the military honors system in general, and the Congressional Medal of Honor in particular. The government also argued that false statements have no value and hence no First Amendment protection.
In holding the Act unconstitutional, the Supreme Court applied the “most exacting scrutiny” in assessing content-based restrictions on protected speech. The Court held that the Act does not satisfy that scrutiny. While the Court recognized the government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the Medal of Honor, the Court determined that the First Amendment requires that there needs to be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. The Court determined that the government failed to show this link because there is no evidence to support its claim that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez. Further, when the government seeks to regulate protected speech, the restriction must be the “least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” The Court found fault that the government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system by creating a database of medal winners accessible and searchable on the Internet.
Thus, the Court found the Stolen Valor Act as invalid under the First Amendment.
The case is U.S. v. Alvarez, No. 11-210, dated June 28, 2012. To review the entire decision, visit: www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-210d4e9.pdf.