WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear an important First Amendment case to decide whether the freedom of speech includes a right to lie about military honors.
The justices voted to hear the government’s defense of the Stolen Valor Act, a 5-year-old law that makes it a crime to falsely claim to have earned medals for service in the U.S. armed forces.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year struck down the law on free-speech grounds and said the government cannot act as the “truth police” to punish lies that cause no direct harm.
“The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time,” wrote Judge Milan Smith in a 2-1 decision. “Given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements.”
But U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., in his appeal, said that “knowingly false” statements deserve little protection under the First Amendment. He pointed to laws against fraud that punish those who make false promises to obtain money and to laws against defamation that punish those who make false and hurtful claims that damage a person’s reputation.
He said that banning false claims to medals and decorations is crucial to “safeguarding the military honors system.”
The court said it will hear the case of United States vs. Alvarez early next year and rule by summer.
The case began in 2007 when a newly elected board member to the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, based in Claremont, Calif., introduced himself as a military vet. “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” said Xavier Alvarez. “Back in 1987, I was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”
None of these claims was true. Alvarez never served in the military.
They were not his first phony claims. He also had claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, worked as a police officer, rescued the U.S. ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis and married a Mexican starlet.
In a separate case, he was prosecuted and sent to prison for insurance fraud.
Acting on a citizen’s complaint, the FBI obtained a recording of the water board meeting at which Alvarez claimed to have won the Medal of Honor. He was said to be the first person indicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act, which forbids “falsely” representing yourself “verbally or in writing” as having been awarded a military medal or decoration that was authorized by Congress.
Alvarez contended the law was unconstitutional, but pleaded guilty when his motion was denied. He was given a fine and three years of probation. He then appealed to the 9th Circuit.