United State v. Alvarez : Stolen Valor Act Can’t Stand Up to Constitutional Scrutiny
In an important case that largely overshadowed by the healthcare decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The controversial law had made it a federal crime to lie about having received a military decoration or medal. While the motivation behind the law was admirable, the Court ultimately concluded it ran afoul of First Amendment protections.
The Facts of the Case
United State v. Alvarez involved statements made by Xavier Alvarez after his appointment as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board in California. During his first meeting, Alvarez stated that he was a retired Marine and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1987. After this was later proven to be untrue, Alvarez was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about receiving the military distinction. He pleaded guilty to one count, reserving the right to appeal on his First Amendment claim.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated the Stolen Valor Act, finding Alvarez’s statements were protected under the First Amendment. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society.”
As the Court noted, “Content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted only for a few historic categories of speech, including incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called ‘fighting words,’ child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the Government has the power to prevent.” The Court was unwilling to extend this list to false statements of fact regarding military honors, particularly where the speaker had no intent to defraud or gain something of value.
Thus, the Stolen Valor Act was subjected to a strict scrutiny standard. As the Court explained, “While the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the Medal of Honor is beyond question, the First Amendment requires that there be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. Here, that link has not been shown. The Government points to no evidence supporting its claim that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by respondent. And it has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech, such as the ridicule respondent received online and in the press, would not suffice to achieve its interest.”
The Court also concluded that there are other, less restrictive ways to protect the sanctity of military honors. “Here, 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, as some private individuals have already done,” the majority highlighted.
Although the current version of the law has been deemed unconstitutional, efforts are already underway in Congress to pass a new version. The new legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, would impose criminal penalties for false statements made about serving in the military or earning a military honor in order to gain something of benefit.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.