Supreme Court: Lying about military medals is protected by Constitution

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to falsely claim being awarded a top military honor, saying the law smacked of an Orwellian Truth Ministry and threatened free speech.

The court invalidated the Stolen Valor Act, under which a California man, Xavier Alvarez, 54, was convicted for claiming falsely in 2007 that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor.

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But Alvarez’s attorneys convinced a lower court that his untruths were protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. And Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed in a 6 to 3 decision.

“Lying was his habit,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote of Alvarez. He “lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico.”

And he lied “in announcing he held the . . . Medal of Honor,” Kennedy wrote. “None of this was true. For all the record shows . . . [the] statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him.”

But they are not illegal, he concluded.

“Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought,” Kennedy wrote in an 18-page opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Elena Kagan joined.

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote: “Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the . . . Medal of Honor, but the Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award.”

He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Veterans groups also were dismayed.

“Public humiliation is now the most effective tool to expose the delusional Walter Mittys of American Society,” Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Vietnam Wall, said in an e-mail, “Military recruiters are happy to welcome those desiring to be valorous in combat into the Armed Forces.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States “is greatly disappointed,” the organization’s commander in chief, Richard L. Denoyer, said in a statement. “Despite the ruling, the VFW will continue to challenge far-fetched stories, and to publicize these false heroes to the broadest extent possible as a deterrent to others.”

Harold A. Fritz, president of the South Carolina-based Congressional Medal of Honor Society and a recipient of the medal during the Vietnam War, said: “It’s more than just a piece of metal suspended on a piece of cloth on a pin. . . . And people who abuse that . . . need to be penalized.”

“I’m certainly not saying we should be the policeman for every lie that takes place,” he said.

But this was Kennedy’s concern.

He worried that the law, if upheld, would let the government start “a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”

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