WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will decide if telling a lie about yourself is a crime — if the lie claims military medals you didn’t earn.
The court said Monday it will rule on the constitutionality of a law that makes it a federal crime for people to claim falsely, either in writing or aloud, that they have been awarded the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star, Purple Heart or any other military medal.
The Stolen Valor Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming support in 2006, apparently has been used only a few dozen times, but the underlying issue of false claims of military heroism has struck a chord in an era in which American soldiers are fighting two wars.
At the same time, the justices have issued a series of rulings in recent terms in favor of free expression, striking down California’s violent video restrictions and a federal law involving cruelty to animals. It also upheld the right of protesters to picket military funerals with provocative, even offensive, messages.
The federal appeals court in California struck down the military medals law on free speech grounds, and appeals courts in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri are considering similar cases.
The Obama administration is arguing that the law “serves a crucial purpose in safeguarding the military honors system.” The administration also says the law is reasonable because it only applies to instances in which the speaker intends to portray himself as a medal recipient. Previous high court rulings also have limited First Amendment protection for false statements, the government said.
The court almost always reviews lower court rulings that hold federal laws unconstitutional.
The case concerns the government’s prosecution of Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif. A member of the local water district board, Alvarez said at a public meeting in 2007 that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. In fact, he had never served in the military.
He was indicted and pleaded guilty with the understanding that he would challenge the law’s constitutionality in his appeal. He was sentenced under the Stolen Valor Act to more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans’ hospital and fined $5,000.
A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to strike down the law. The majority said there is no evidence that lies such as the one told by Alvarez harm anybody and no compelling reason to make a crime out of them.
In a dissent, Judge Jay Bybee said his colleagues should have followed previous Supreme Court rulings holding that false statements are not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The appeals court refused the government’s request to have the case heard again by a larger group of its judges. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, agreeing with the majority, said people often tell lies about themselves in day-to-day social interactions. He said it would be “terrifying” if people could be prosecuted for merely telling lies.
But seven appellate judges said they would have heard the case, suggesting that they would have upheld Alvarez’s conviction.
The case is U.S. v. Alvarez, 11-210.
The law had been the latest congressional effort to try to keep people from wearing medals they did not earn. But it was the first time that lawmakers made it a crime for someone to claim falsely that he had been awarded a medal.
A proposal in the House of Representatives would amend the law to apply only when the deception is aimed at getting something of value in return.
Many of the cases to date involve men who were not accused of trying to profit from their claims. Almost everyone convicted under the law has been ordered to perform community service.
Arguments will take place early next year.