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Washington • The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to falsely claim being awarded a top military honor, saying the law infringed on the Constitution's First Amendment protection of free speech.
The court ruling concerned the Stolen Valor Act, under which a California man, Xavier Alvarez, was convicted for claiming falsely in 2007 that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
But Alvarez's attorneys convinced a lower court that his untruths were protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. And Thursday the Supreme Court agreed.
"Content based restrictions on speech have been permitted only for a few historic categories ... including incitement, obscenity, defamation," the court wrote in a summary.
"The Act seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings," the court wrote. "Permitting the Government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable."
Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Wall, commented in an email: "The Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects a wide range of obnoxious behavior including this.
"Public humiliation is now the most effective tool to expose the delusional Walter Mittys of American Society," he added. "Military recruiters are happy to welcome those desiring to be valorous in combat into the Armed Forces."
Other veterans groups expressed dismay.
"The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is greatly disappointed," the organization's commander in chief, Richard Denoyer, said in a statement. "Despite the ruling, the VFW will continue to challenge far-fetched stories, and to publicize these false heroes to the broadest extent possible as a deterrent to others."
The case has generated huge interest and divided First Amendment advocates, including the media, and veterans groups, who saw the act as a necessary weapon to discourage what appears to be a boomlet of self-aggrandizers.
According to a brief filed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and two dozen veterans groups, "Pretenders have included a U.S. Attorney, member of Congress, ambassador, judge, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and bestselling author, manager of a Major League Baseball team, Navy captain, police chief, top executive at a world-famous research laboratory, director of state veterans programs, university administrator, pastor, candidate for countywide office, mayor, physician, and more than one police officer."
The Supreme Court in recent years has been protective of speech rights in several high-profile cases. The court struck down a broadly written law on depicting animal cruelty, upheld the rights of a controversial group that demonstrates at military funerals and blocked a California law that attempted to outlaw the sale of violent video games to minors.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 news organizations, including The Washington Post, filed a brief supporting Alvarez to argue that upholding the law would reverse "the basic presumption against official oversight of expression."
Veterans groups, on the other hand, said falsely claiming the honors was theft.
In preparation of an adverse ruling from the court, some in Congress have endorsed a version of the law that would make it a crime to benefit from lying about being an award-winner.
In arguments last February, the court pondered whether the First Amendment allows the government to prosecute people for lying about earning military honors, and, if so, what else might be fair game.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., arguing on behalf of the law, contended that the statute is "about as narrow as you can get," and targets with "pinpoint accuracy" only "calculated factual falsehoods."
The government since the days of George Washington has shown an interest in promoting valor and bravery in its military and keeping "charlatans" from usurping that glory, he argued.
The act allowed a fine and/or a six-month prison term for someone who "falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States."
The penalty increases to a year in prison if the person lies about a Purple Heart, a Medal of Honor or another particularly high honor.
There was no question that Alvarez lied. After winning a seat on Southern California's Three Valleys Municipal Water District board of directors in 2007, he introduced himself by saying: "I'm a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy."
None of that was true. But a district judge overturned Alvarez's conviction by declaring the law a violation of the First Amendment.
Others disagreed. Ninth Circuit court Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain had held that the decision to find the law unconstitutional "runs counter to nearly forty years of Supreme Court precedent" in which the court "has steadfastly instructed that false statements of fact are not protected by the First Amendment."
History of the Stolen Valor Act
1782 • Then-Gen. George Washington establishes military decorations, seven years before he is elected as the first president. Washington also prescribes severe military punishment for soldiers who purport to be medal winners but aren't. It long has been a federal crime to wear unearned medals, but mere claims of being decorated were beyond the reach of law enforcement.
2006 • Congress passes the Stolen Valor Act in 2006 without hearings, and with an abbreviated debate that only lasts about 20 minutes in the House.
2006 • President George W. Bush signs the act into law.
Sources: The Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers