Why the Supreme Court is Reviewing the Stolen Valor Act
Posted by Matt Pizzo on March 5
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in U.S. v. Alvarez, the case that thrust Xavier Alvarez, his lies, and the government’s desire to preserve the honor and dignity bestowed on decorated military veterans to the forefront of the Free Speech debate. U.S. v. Alvarez presents to the U.S. Supreme Court the issue of whether the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional – that is, does a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about receiving military medals or honors violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech?
In 2006, the Stolen Valor Act made it a federal crime for a person to (among other things) knowingly wear, purchase or attempt to purchase any decoration, service medal, badge, ribbon or button of the armed forces of the United States which they have not been awarded or authorized to wear. A conviction for this federal misdemeanor comes with a fine, six months in federal prison, or both. The same punishment is in store for anyone convicted of falsely saying or writing that they have been awarded a decoration or medal. Falsely claiming to win the Congressional Medal of Honor brings with it an additional six months in jail.
Xavier Alvarez violated the Act in 2007 when he stood as an elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District Board in Pomona, California and introduced himself:
“I'm a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I'm still around.”
There is no debate regarding the moral wrong Mr. Alvarez committed when claiming to wear the shoes of a decorated veteran – even his own attorney has come forward and repeatedly admitted his client is a liar. In fact, their brief to the Supreme Court opens by listing some of the biggest lies Mr. Alvarez has told to date, to include his lies of rescuing the American Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis and then being shot while going back to grab the American flag. But was the government overstepping their powers when they passed the Stolen Valor Act and attempted to punish those like Mr. Alvarez for stating outrageous lies? That is what the Supreme Court is attempting to decide at this very moment.
Mr. Alvarez is arguing that the Stolen Valor Act is both unconstitutional on its face, and as applied to him in this case. Mr. Alvarez contends the Act took away his right to free speech, and even if that speech amounts to nothing more than lying about being a decorated veteran, the government does not have the power or authority to do so. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” It is a founding principal of this country and one of the most basic rights our soldiers fight to protect. In the 2010 Case Brown v EMA, the Supreme Court addressed free speech and First Amendment protections, holding “ [A]s a general matter, . . . government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Traditionally, the Supreme Court has permitted the government to only limit speech that is obscene, defamatory, fraudulent, or would lead to incitement or is integral to criminal conduct. The crux of Mr. Alvarez’s argument is that lying about oneself, though unpopular and morally questionable, is not a category of speech that the government is can freely place limits on. On rare occasions the government may restrict speech when doing so serves a “compelling government interest” and is narrowly tailored to have as little impact on free speech as possible. Mr. Alvarez claims that this is not one of those rare occasions because the government has not presented evidence proving the goal of the law (protecting the importance and value of the medals) is what the Supreme Court considers a “compelling government interest,” nor is the potential impact on free speech worth allowing this law to stand.
Those in support of the Stolen Valor Act, including the over 50 organizations (the majority of which are veteran-based) who have written the Supreme Court, contend that the government’s actions were completely within their powers. In the eyes of the government, military members, veterans and supporters, Mr. Alvarez not only lied, but also stole. He stole honor, acclaim and goodwill away from those who have earned the medals they proudly wear. Those who falsely present themselves with the title of “decorated veteran” are committing fraud, theft, and not only hurt the interests of this country’s military, but also the interest of anyone tricked into accepting these lies as truths. As a result, these fraudulent statements and actions are exactly the type of speech that the government has the power to restrict, and the Stolen Valor Act is the appropriate tool to deter posers and punish fraudsters. Further, the government believes there is no question about the “compelling interest” in upholding military tradition and morale, and that the Act is appropriately written to achieve its goals with little restriction on free speech.
This is where the parties stood last week when presenting their cases to the Supreme Court. Mr. Alvarez’s attorney attempted to persuade the panel to accept his assertions that the government is overstepping their bounds, is acting without the authority to limit the speech and actions listed in the Stolen Valor Act, and have failed to meet the heightened legal requirements necessary to uphold this piece of legislation. The government was grounded in their position that preserving the honor attached to military awards, the morale of the military, and preventing fraud needs to be addressed. The speech and actions listed within the Stolen Valor Act are not deserving of protection under the First Amendment and this law justly serves to prevent the type of fraud that harms not only the military, but its legacy, its veterans and the entirety of the American population.
Legal scholars and commentators are torn about the possible outcome of this case. The nuances of each legal argument, the precedents set by previous Supreme Court cases and the evidence each side presented has raised doubts on both sides. The Court could decide to uphold the law and find that protecting the military honor and prestige justifies restricting free speech, even if only slightly. The Court could choose instead to strike down the law, standing behind the historical belief in the right to “speak and write whatever one chooses . . . without cowering in fear of a powerful government.”
Regardless of the outcome, this case has brought to light the value Americans place on free speech, and for the first time in recent memory, has placed those charged with protecting free speech squarely within the debate. One wonders, after this case is decided, the truth of the statement “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Matthew Pizzo served in the active duty Air Force from 2001 through 2005, deploying to Talil AB, Iraq in September 2004. Following his service, Matthew graduated summa cum laude from the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs with a degree in International Business and in 2011 received his J.D. from New York Law School.
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