The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide the constitutionality of a 2006 law making it a criminal offense to lie about being decorated for military service.
The Stolen Valor Act makes it unlawful to falsely represent, verbally or in writing, to have been “awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item.” The measure imposes penalties of up to a year in prison.
The case before the justices surrounds a federal appeals court decision declaring the law unconstitutional last year (.pdf).
In overturning the law, the San Francisco–based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled if that it were to uphold the law “then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway.”
That case, which the Justice Department asked the high court to review, concerns defendant Xavier Alvarez. In 2007, he claimed falsely that as a Marine, he had won the Medal of Honor. He made that public statement during a local Los Angeles suburban water board meeting, in which he had just won a seat on its board of directors.
The government said Alvarez should be prosecuted because the speech fits into the “narrowly limited” classes of speech, such as defamation, that is historically unprotected by the First Amendment. In its petition, the government told the justices that the “court of appeals held facially unconstitutional an act of Congress that plays a vital role in safeguarding the integrity and efficacy of the government’s military honors system.” (.pdf)
Congress, when adopting the law, said fraudulent claims about military honors “damage the reputation and meaning of such decorations and medals.”
Alvarez was the first person ever charged and convicted under the act — though dozens more have been charged. Alvarez pleaded guilty, was fined $5,000 and ordered to perform 416 hours of community service. He appealed his conviction to the 9th Circuit.
The Supreme Court justices did not immediately indicate when they would hear the case and did not comment. (.pdf)
See the SCOTUSblog for all filed documents in the case.
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