WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court struck down a federal law that made it a crime to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor and other prized military awards, with justices branding the false claim "contemptible" but nonetheless protected by the First Amendment.
The court voted 6-3 Thursday in favor of Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official in California who falsely said he was a decorated war veteran and had pleaded guilty to violating the 2006 law, known as the Stolen Valor Act. The law, enacted when the United States was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, was aimed at people making phony claims of heroism in battle.
The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ordered that the conviction be thrown out.
"Though few might find respondent's statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment," Kennedy said.
The high court has in recent years rejected limits on speech. The justices struck down a federal ban on videos showing graphic violence against animals and rejected a state law intended to keep violent video games away from children. The court also turned aside the attempt by the father of a dead Marine to sue fundamentalist church members who staged a mocking protest at his son's funeral. In 1989, the court said the Constitution protects the burning of the American flag.
"These lies have no value in and of themselves, and proscribing them does not chill any valuable speech," Alito said. "By holding that the First Amendment nevertheless shields these lies, the court breaks sharply from a long line of cases recognizing that the right to free speech does not protect false statements that inflict real harm and serve no legitimate interest."
Alvarez made his claims in introducing himself as an elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Pomona, Calif. There is nothing to suggest that he received anything in exchange or that listeners especially believed him.
The government had defended the law as necessary to punish impostors to protect the integrity of military medals.
B.G. "Jug" Burkett, the Vietnam veteran whose 1998 book, "Stolen Valor," inspired the law, said he was disappointed with the ruling. "It kind of blows my mind," Burkett said. "The Medal of Honor! The vast majority of the people who were awarded that were killed in action in the service of their country, and we can't protect that decoration from disrespect?"
But Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan said in a separate opinion that there were ways for the government to stop liars "in less restrictive ways." One possibility would be to "insist upon a showing that the false statement caused a specific harm or at least was material, or focus its coverage on lies most likely to be harmful or on contexts where such lies are most likely to cause harm," Breyer said.