America / Rule of Law

Freedom to lie? United States v Xavier Alvarez

The Stolen Valor Act was passed by Congress in 2006 to honor and respect the service men and women who have earned military medals. The Act prohibits people from falsely claiming they earned an armed service medal. Depending on the false claim, a person can be punished to up to six months to a year in prison.  Congress believed it was constitutional to restrict this speech when a person intentionally claims a false statement. In the Supreme Court case The United States v Xavier Alvarez, the courts will be challenged to determine if there can be limits put upon the first amendment, the right to free speech and if stating false claims can be criminalized.[1]

Xavier Alvarez violated the Stolen Valor Act when he lied about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. While a member of Three Valleys Water District of California, Alvarez was recorded telling other board members “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.”1 Since Alvarez never served in the military, these statements were knowingly false.

Alvarez pled guilty to violating two counts of the Stolen Valor Act. The District Court ordered him to three years of probation, complete 416 hours of community service and pay a $5000 fine. However, Alvarez appealed on the grounds that this violated his first amendment right and won 2-1 in the Ninth Circuit Court.[2] The appellate court ruled that the Stolen Valor Act was a violation of the first amendment due to vague writing and could be used for manipulation by the government. The majority opinion did not believe that Mr. Alvarez’s lie harmed the medal or the valor associated with it.1

 With a split decision over the Stolen Valor Act, the Justice Department turned to the Supreme Court to rule on the issue. The US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr petitioned that the Act should be upheld and State’s should have an interest in protecting the honor of the service medals. The petitioner also urged the court to uphold the Act if a false claim is intentionally stated regarding military honors because the courts have upheld similar decisions in cases of fraud, and false promises in political campaigns.2 Moreover, the U.S. Solicitor General suggested the courts should have strict scrutiny on false statements that are intended to deceive.2

Alvarez’s defense claimed that his lie did not promote or benefit Alvarez in any way.1 They also argued that the United States does not regularly enforce the Stolen Valor Act, having only heard 45 cases in five years.1 In their brief to the court, Alvarez’s attorneys contended that having some false statements be protected under the first amendment and other false statements a violation of the first amendment is inconsistent. Lastly, Alvarez does not believe his lie harmed anyone or the integrity of armed service medals.

After hearing oral arguments on Wednesday, February 22, 2012, the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act and if it is a crime to lie about receiving an armed service medal. The court will also have to decide if the Stolen Valor Act is able to prohibit certain types of speech. The decision of the court will affect many important American values; the first amendment, military awards and intentional deceit.2