WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said
Monday that it would decide whether a federal law making it a
crime to lie about being awarded a military medal or decoration
violated free-speech rights.
The justices agreed to review a ruling by the 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals that struck down the "Stolen Valor Act," which
was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006, because the law went
too far in infringing on freedom-of-speech protections under
the First Amendment.
The law targets individuals who falsely claim, verbally or
in writing, they won a military decoration or medal. Violators
can face up to six months in prison, or up to one year if elite
awards, including the Medal of Honor, are involved.
In the 9th Circuit decision, the majority ruled against the
government and said that the false speech criminalized by the
Stolen Valor Act was not protected by the First Amendment. The
judges said that if lying about a medal can be classified a
crime, so can lying about one's age or finances on Facebook or
falsely telling one's mother one does not smoke, drink, have
sex or speed.
The Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal by the Obama
administration defending the law as constitutional and arguing
it served an important role of protecting the integrity of the
nation's military honors system.
The case involves Xavier Alvarez, who was elected to a
California water board in Pomona. He introduced himself at a
board meeting in 2007 and said he was a retired Marine who won
the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.
Alvarez, described in court documents as a congenital liar,
never received the award and never served in the military.
The FBI got a recording of the meeting and in 2007 Alvarez
became the first person charged under the law. He pleaded
guilty and was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine and perform more
than 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital.
He then challenged the law for violating his free-speech
By a 2-1 vote, the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco,
threw out his conviction and ruled the government cannot bar
speech simply because it was factually false. It noted the
misrepresentations caused no harm or danger.
The appeals court used a strict scrutiny standard, which
applies to content-based speech restrictions, to decide the
case in favor of Alvarez. The standard required the government
to show the Stolen Valor Act's prohibition on speech was
"narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental
In applying the standard, the judges said that Congress has
"an interest, even a compelling interest" in preserving the
integrity of its military honors system. However they found it
was "speculative at best" to conclude that the act was narrowly
tailored to preserve that interest. The government's subsequent
appeal for a rehearing en banc was denied.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli appealed to the
Supreme Court. He said the law prohibited only a narrow
category of knowingly made false factual claims, lies that
steal the honor and prestige associated with military medals.
He said cases challenging the constitutionality of the
Stolen Valor Act are pending in the 4th, 8th, 10th and 11th
Jonathan Libby, a deputy federal public defender in Los
Angeles who represented Alvarez, urged the Supreme Court to
reject the appeal because the question did not involve broad
importance and the appeals court simply applied settled law.
He said Alvarez made his false claim introducing himself as
an elected officer at a political event, a water district
meeting, and was unconstitutionally punished for political
Libby said that in the nearly five years since the law went
into effect, 45 cases that have been brought.
Legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of
Representatives in May to amend the law to make
misrepresentations about receiving a medal or decoration a
crime only if there had been intent to profit.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case
early next year, with a ruling likely by the end of June.
In addition to the Alvarez case, the Supreme Court agreed
on Monday to hear another case involving the federal
The justices will hear arguments over whether federal
courts have jurisdiction over federal employees' requests for
injunctive relief and other equitable claims. The case, Elgin
v. U.S. Department of Treasury, involves four government
workers who were fired for refusing to register for selective
service, which is required for federal employees. The four
employees sued in federal court, claiming their due process
rights had been violated. When their case reached the 1st
Circuit, the court acknowledged a split in circuit courts and
upheld the district court's holding that federal courts are
precluded for granting equitable relief for constitutional
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Xavier Alvarez,
The appeals court case was USA vs. Xavier Alvarez, No.
For the petitioner: Donald Verrilli, U.S. Solicitor
For the Respondent: Jonathan Libby, Deputy Federal Public
(Reporting by James Vicini; additional reporting by Rebecca
Hamilton and Erin Geiger Smith in New York)
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