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U.S. Supreme Court Finds a Constitutional Right to Lie

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a significant First Amendment freedom of speech case in United States v. Xavier Alvarez (decided June 28, 2012), which has received little attention in the mainstream media.  The decision, by a divided Court, is contrary to a long line of prior Supreme Court cases recognizing that the First Amendment simply does not protect lies ? knowingly false statements of fact that serve no legitimate interest.

Medal of Honor False Claims

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime for a person to falsely represent that he or she has been awarded a military medal for service in the U.S. Armed Forces, and imposes a higher penalty for false claims of receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor which can be bestowed upon a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.  Congress enacted the Stolen Valor Act "in response to a proliferation of false claims concerning the receipt of military awards.  For example, in a single year, more than 600 Virginia residents falsely claimed to have won the Medal of Honor  ….  Notorious cases brought to Congress' attention included the case of a judge who falsely claimed to have been awarded two Medals of Honor and displayed counterfeit medals in his courtroom …"  (Alvarez, J. Alito dissenting).

The specific facts in the Alvarez case are outrageous and compelling.  Xavier Alvarez won a seat on the public Three Valley Water District Board of Directors.  On July 23, 2007, at his first public meeting as a new Board Director, he arose and introduced himself as follows:

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.

None of this was true.  He was never awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he never served a single day in the Marine Corps or any other branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.  As acknowledged even by the Supreme Court's majority opinion in the Alvarez case:  "Lying was his habit."  He had also previously stated that he won the Medal of Honor for rescuing the American Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that he had been shot in the back while returning to the embassy to save the American flag.  On other occasions he stated that he was a Vietnam helicopter pilot who had been shot down, that he had played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, that he had been a police officer, and that he had been married to a Mexican starlet.

The FBI obtained a tape recording from that July 23, 2007 public meeting.  Alvarez was then charged with and convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act for his false statement at the meeting regarding the Medal of Honor.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction, ruling that the Stolen Valor Act violated Alvarez' First Amendment right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution.

Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court decision attempted to distinguish other situations, such as fraud or defamation (libel/slander) cases, where the false statement has a causal link to some identified harm.  But it is clear that lies regarding receipt of the Medal of Honor do in fact inflict tangible and substantial harm.  "Individuals often falsely represent themselves as award recipients in order to obtain financial or other material awards."  (J. Alito, dissenting).  Is there any real doubt about the motive of a public official who lies at a public meeting about receiving the Medal of Honor, or about the intended and actual effect that lie has on the audience?

As stated by the dissenting opinion in the Alvarez case:

Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the [majority of the Supreme] Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award.

 

            Charles Dickens' reaction to the Supreme Court majority's decision in Alvarez would be as follows: "If the law supposes that … [then] the law is an ass ? an idiot."  (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens).