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Supreme Court ruling on Stolen Valor Act rests on 1st Amendment

June 28, 2012 |  8:38 am

Medal of Honor

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Thursday striking down the Stolen Valor Act says the 1st Amendment "protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace," according to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

By a 6-3 decision, the high court said the right to lie about medals and military service, while "contemptible" and worthy of outrage and ridicule, is protected by the 1st Amendment.

To allow the government to outlaw certain speech because it is based on false statements would invite a Ministry of Truth as written about by George Orwell in his novel "1984" about totalitarianism, Kennedy said.

The decision came in the case of Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in eastern Los Angeles County.

At his first meeting, Alvarez had claimed he was a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor; in fact, he had never served in the military. After being charged, he resigned from the board.

Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said that Alvarez's lies "were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the medal."

Alvarez, a resident of Pomona, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. His attorneys appealed; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his appeal, and the Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction.

Defending the law, government lawyers argued that lies about military medals are "false statements (that) have no value and hence no 1st Amendment protection."

The majority disagreed, saying that there is no proof that lying about medals degrades the value and honor of those who have actually earned those medals.

The law was passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush. It called for a possible one-year prison term.

Voting in favor of striking down the law were the Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito.


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Photo: The Medal of Honor. Credit: U.S. Army.