Published October 17, 2011
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court will decide whether a law making it a crime to lie about having received military medals is constitutional.
The justices said Monday they will consider the validity of the Stolen Valor Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming support in 2006. The federal appeals court in California struck down the law on free speech grounds and another appeals court in Colorado is considering a separate case.
The Obama administration is arguing that the law is reasonable because it only applies to instances in which the speaker intends to portray himself as a medal recipient. Previous high court rulings also have limited First Amendment protection for false statements.
The court almost always reviews lower court rulings that hold federal laws unconstitutional.
The case concerns the government's prosecution of Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif. A member of the local water district board, Alvarez said at a public meeting in 2007 that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. In fact, he had never served in the military.
He was indicted and pleaded guilty with the understanding that he would challenge the law's constitutionality in his appeal. He was sentenced under the Stolen Valor Act to more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital and fined $5,000.
A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to strike down the law. The majority said there is no evidence that lies such as the one told by Alvarez harm anybody and no compelling reason to make a crime out of them.
In a dissent, Judge Jay Bybee said his colleagues should have followed previous Supreme Court rulings holding that false statements are not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The appeals court refused the government's request to have the case heard again by a larger group of judges. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, agreeing with the majority, said people often tell lies about themselves in day-to-day social interactions. He said it would be "terrifying" if people could be prosecuted for merely telling lies.
But seven appellate judges said they would have heard the case, suggesting that Alvarez's conviction should have been upheld.
The law had been the latest congressional effort to try to keep people from wearing medals they did not earn. But it was the first time that lawmakers made it a crime for someone to claim falsely that he had been awarded a medal.
The law has led to dozens of arrests at a time when veterans coming home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being embraced as heroes. Many of the cases involve men who were not accused of trying to profit from their claims. Almost everyone convicted under the law has been ordered to perform community service.
Arguments will take place early next year.