Supreme Court to Determine if Lying about Military Honors is Protected Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Stolen Valor Act this week. The law has been found to be unconstitutional because it restricts free speech.: Photo by Flickr user dbking

Those who have served and sacrificed for our country deserve special honor and recognition. One way these sacrifices are recognized is through the awarding of military medals and decorations.

Unfortunately, sometimes individuals who have not earned these honors falsely pretend to have done so. In response to this issue, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was passed and became effective in December 2006.

The law made it a federal offense for individuals to claim verbally or in writing to have received any military award that they have not. This offense is punishable by a fine and/or up to six months in jail, double if the offense involves valor awards, such as the Medal of Honor, or the Purple Heart.

Since the law’s enactment, courts have been prosecuting individuals under this law. As these cases have come through the Court system, however, there have been differences of opinion as to whether the law is Constitutional.

A California man, Xavier Alvarez, was prosecuted for falsely claiming to be a Medal of Honor recipient at a public meeting. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to community service at a Veterans’ hospital.

He appealed his conviction on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment free speech rights. In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The majority found that there was no evidence that the lies harmed anyone, and no compelling reason for the government to ban such lies. The dissenting judge pointed out that Supreme Court precedent indicates that false statements are not entitled to First Amendment protection.

Last month, another Federal Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, upheld the law in a separate case. The Court reasoned that the First Amendment does not always protect false statements.

The Court noted: “The Supreme Court has observed time and again, false statements of fact do not enjoy constitutional protection, except to the extent necessary to protect more valuable speech. Under this principle, the Stolen Valor Act does not impinge on or chill protected speech, and therefore does not offend the First Amendment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has now agreed to examine Constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Law and will be hearing oral arguments on the issue this week.


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