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A crime to fib? Stolen Valor Act ruled unconstitutional

Most of the weekend’s headlines concentrated on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare. But on the final day of its session last Thursday, the high court also struck down a federal law making it a crime to lie about having received the Medal of Honor and other prized military medals.

The court had previously designated a number of categories of speech as not deserving full First Amendment protection, including obscenity, incitement to imminent harm, libel and defamation, and fraud. But in most of those areas, the speech in question causes a concrete injury – it advances an undertaking that’s harmful or criminal in its own right. The Stolen Valor Act was far less carefully targeted. Any false statement claiming receipt of a medal could be punished.

The case in question involved one Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official who stood up and introduced himself at a California water district meeting in 2007, saying, "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."

It turned out, however, that Alvarez never served a day in the U.S. military and was awarded no medals.

Alvarez was indicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. His lawyer argued Americans have a free-speech right to make false and outrageous claims about themselves without facing criminal prosecution.

The court voted 6-3 to throw out the conviction.

Those who impersonate war heroes deserve our scorn and derision. If they use the lie to commit or advance fraud, they should be prosecuted under existing statutes.

But could Congress also pass laws that make it a crime to lie about your education? Your medical history?

Who could foresee when anyone from a stand-up comic to a writer of satires might claim for comic or literary effect – or even create a fictional character who claims for himself, speaking in the first person – false military honors?

His attorney says Alvarez did not go unpunished; he was pilloried in his community as an "idiot" and a "jerk" after his false statements were exposed, exactly as he should have been. Alvarez also claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings. Should he have been prosecuted for that?

There were obvious free speech issues with this overly broad law. The court’s ruling was the right one.

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