Friday, June 29, 2012
Stolen Valor Act Is Unconstitutional, U.S. Supreme Court Rules
‘Pathetic,’ ‘Contemptible’ Medal Claim by Pomona-Area Official Protected by First Amendment, Kennedy Writes for Majority
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Stolen Valor Act of 2005, making it a crime to falsely claim to hold certain military decorations, in particular the Congressional Medal of Honor, is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 6-3 decision, the court said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was correct when it ruled two years ago that Xavier Alvarez’s lie about holding the medal—one of several told by the former Three Valleys Municipal Water District board member—was protected by the First Amendment.
“Lying was his habit,” Kennedy wrote of Alvarez.
He “lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico,” the justice noted. “But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute....”
That actually was not the only lie that got Alvarez in trouble. He served a prison term for misappropriating district funds by qualifying his ex-wife for insurance benefits by claiming they were still married.
Alvarez was elected to the water board in 2006 by south Pomona voters. Asked to introduce himself at his first meeting, he explained that he had served for 29 years in the Marine Corps and held several decorations, including a Medal of Honor for pulling the flag from the embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis in the 1970s.
In fact, he had never served in the military. He entered a plea of guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act, reserving the right to appeal, and was placed on probation after U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California upheld the act.
Alvarez remained a member of the water board, however, until October 2009, when he was sentenced by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Camacho to five years in state prison for fraud.
‘Respect Eluded Him’
His claims about his military exploits, Kennedy said, were apparently “a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him.” There was no evidence that he was seeking financial gain or special privileges reserved for medal winners, the jurist noted.
While the Stolen Valor Act has a noble purpose, Kennedy said, it is a content-based regulation of speech and fails to survive the “exacting scrutiny” to which such regulations must be subjected.
“Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment,” Kennedy said.
The government, he noted, failed to draw a line between Alvarez’s speech and any harm. There was no evidence that anyone believed him, and in fact his lies were widely reported on and he was ostracized in the community, Kennedy noted.
“Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment,” Kennedy said. “By this measure, the statutory provisions under which respondent was convicted must be held invalid, and his conviction must be set aside.”
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred but adopted a different analysis, saying the government had a legitimate interest in suppressing false claims to hold military medals, but could do so “in less restrictive ways.”
One possibility would be to “insist upon a showing that the false statement caused a specific harm or at least was material, or focus its coverage on lies most likely to be harmful or on contexts where such lies are most likely to cause harm,” Breyer wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented.
“These lies have no value in and of themselves, and proscribing them does not chill any valuable speech,” Alito said. “By holding that the First Amendment nevertheless shields these lies, the court breaks sharply from a long line of cases recognizing that the right to free speech does not protect false statements that inflict real harm and serve no legitimate interest.”
The case is United States v. Alvarez, 11-210.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company