The U.S. Supreme Court Monday took a case that will test the scope of the First Amendment when the justices decide on the constitutionality of a law that criminalizes false public comments about receiving military medals.
The justices will hear arguments in a case over the U.S. Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law that punishes people with up to a year in prison for publicly speaking about military medals they never received.
Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of a municipal water board in southern California, was charged under the Stolen Valor Act for comments he made in 2007 at a public water district meeting. He told the crowd that he was a retired marine who was wounded many times and received a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1987, despite never serving in the armed forces.
Alvarez pled guilty, receiving three years of probation and a $5,000 fine, after he failed to get the charges dropped, citing First Amendment protection.
A three-judge panel in the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional because the law was written broadly. The government failed at getting all of the Ninth Circuit judges to review the decision.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit said that it would be terrifying if false statements by themselves are unprotected under the First Amendment.
If false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit, Kozinski wrote. Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic' and 'I didn't inhale' could all be made into crimes.
Other appellate courts in the U.S. are weighing similar challenges to the Stolen Valor Act.
The Obama administration backs the law, saying that its part of a tradition of protecting medals members of the armed service have earned. The Stolen Valor Act passed Congress because laws prohibiting people from falsely wearing or selling medals were too weak, according to a Supreme Court petition from U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
Verrilli also said that the Ninth Circuit was incorrect in killing the Stolen Valor Act, arguing that the law provides breathing room for free speech, the same way fraud and defamation are outside First Amendment protections.
The government has a strong--indeed, compelling--interest in protecting the reputation and integrity of its military honor system against knowingly false claims, Verrilli wrote. The act appropriately accommodates that interest and First Amendment concerns because it provides ample breathing room for protected speech.
If the Supreme Court judges uphold the Ninth Circuit decision striking the Stolen Valor Act, there is legislation pending in the U.S. Congress that would tweak the law. In response to the Ninth Circuit's decision, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., introduced legislation in May that would prohibit misrepresentations about military awards if they are used with the intent to obtain something of value.