Charles Dharapak/AP

Supreme Court: Lies about military honors protected as free speech

A 6-3 decision strikes down the Stolen Valor Act.

In the shadow of a historic decision upholding the heart of health care reform, the Supreme Court unveiled another, lower-profile decision Thursday: Lying about receiving military honors is protected by the First Amendment.

A 6-3 ruling found the Stolen Valor Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, to be unconstitutional. The law makes it a federal crime to falsify a military honor, punishable by up to a year in prison. Justice Anthony Kennedy announced the court’s plurality opinion, saying that the Stolen Valor Act infringes on free speech rights.

“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 opinion read. “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 [the] respondent.”

The case brought to the court, United States v. Alvarez, concerned California public official Xavier Alvarez, who challenged the law after receiving three years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and community service for telling an audience he received the Congressional Medal of Honor when he had never served in the military.

The court heard arguments on Feb. 22 and ultimately ordered Alvarez’s conviction be thrown out, according to SCOTUSblog.

Though the justices ruled that the U.S. government should be able to regulate certain false statements of fact in some capacity, the law as written extended to private as well as public contexts, making its reach too significant, the majority opinion said.

Justice Samuel Alito led the dissenting opinion.

Richard L. Denoyer, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, told The Washington Post the organization “is greatly disappointed” in the decision.