The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a federal law that criminalized lying about receiving military decorations or medals is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices struck down the Stolen Valor Act, a bill passed by Congress in 2005 and signed into law by President George W. Bush the following year that made it illegal for a person to falsely claim, either verbally or in writing, that they received military honors. Violators could be punished by up to a year in prison if their offense involved the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military medal awarded to troops who display "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."
In the case, United States v. Alvarez, Obama administration attorneys asserted that protecting the integrity of medals awarded to troops who displayed great valor in combat was in the government's interest. Xavier Alvarez, a local California politician elected to the Pomona Water Board, had lied to voters claiming he was a former Marine who was awarded the Medal of Honor. Alvarez, who had never even served in the military, was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act after the F.B.I. obtained a recording of the meeting at which he made his spurious claim. He pleaded guilty and was punished with 400 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.
Opponents of the law argued before the Supreme Court that it was too broad and that it was a violation of constitutionally-protected free speech that could be applied even to innocent bragging or satire. Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with Chief Justice John Robert and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, announced a plurality opinion in which they concurred that the Stolen Valor act indeed infringes upon free speech. The law, they ruled, is unconstitutional because the government failed to prove that it is necessary to protect the integrity of military honors.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred separately. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.