Supreme Court strikes down Stolen Valor ActAbner S. Greene in USA Today, June 28, 2012
The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a 2005 federal law that punishes people who lie about medals and military service, concluding it had a sweeping and chilling effect on free speech.
The 6-3 decision in United States vs. Alvarez involves the case of a California water board member, Xavier Alvarez, who falsely claimed to have received the Medal of Honor.
He was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act. He pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal. His sentence was three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service.
"Though few might find (Alvarez's) statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech and expression," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
He wrote that the First Amendment "protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace."
Proponents of the law, including the nation's largest veterans organization, the 2.4-million member American Legion, expressed dismay over the ruling. But they held out hope that a different version might survive legal review.
"We felt good about portions of the decision which suggest that a more narrowly tailored bill which incorporates traditional fraud elements would be upheld," says Fang Wong, national commander of the American Legion.
Allowing lies about medals to go unpunished "is in fact a degradation of the value and honor of those that earn the medal," says Harold Fritz, a Medal of Honor recipient and president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Kennedy said that the law as written would criminalize any false speech, even "personal, whispered conversations within a home" and this was granting the government too much power.
Fordham University Law Professor Abner Greene said the majority appeared to leave open the possibility of a law that would penalize lies about valor if they were shown to be a basis for fraud or monetary gain.
"I think that some sort of revision could be constitutional," Greene says.
Kennedy's plurality opinion was signed by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. A concurring judgment by Justice Stephen Breyer was joined by Justice Elena Kagan.
Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the law poses no threat to free speech, but rather punishes lies that if allowed to continue, are "undermining our country's system of military honors and inflicting real harm on actual medal recipients and their families."