While health care steals the spotlight, Stolen Valor Act struck down

Most of the media on Thursday was mesmerized by the theatrics surrounding the landmark Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act. But the court issued a ruling on another contested law–one with intriguing constitutional plot twists and a colorful character in the starring role.

White House photo by Pete Souza.

In United States v. Alvarez, at issue was whether the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent yourself as a recipient of any U.S. military decoration or medal, violates free speech.

In the Supreme Court’s opinion today, the justices ruled 6-3 that the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment.

The case arose from one Xavier Alvarez. In 2007, newly elected to the board of directors of a the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Alvarez introduced himself as a meeting like this:

“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.”

As the opinion from the federal court case that preceded the Supreme Court hearing so plainly put it, the facts were these:

“Alvarez has never been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, nor has he spent a single day as a marine or in the service of any other branch of the United States armed forces. In short, with the exception of ‘I’m still around,’ his self-introduction was nothing but a series of bizarre lies. … Apparently, Alvarez makes a hobby of lying about himself to make people think he is ‘a psycho from the mental ward with Rambo stories.’”

This series of “bizarre lies,” according to the opinion, included these:

  • He claimed to have rescued an ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that he had been shot in the back as he returned to the embassy to save the American flag.
  • He reportedly claimed that he was a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot who had been shot down but then, with the help of his buddies, was able to get the chopper back into the sky.
  • He claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings.
  • He claimed to have worked as a police officer (who was fired for using excessive force).
  • He claimed to have been secretly married to a Mexican starlet.

After the FBI obtained a recording of the water district board meeting, Alvarez was indicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act. According to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Alvarez is the first person to be charged and convicted under the present version of the act.

The Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the Stolen Valor Act concluded that even false statements like Alvarez’s qualified as protected speech under the First Amendment. SCOTUSblog’s Tejinder Singh offered analysis:

“The plurality reasoned that, with only narrow exceptions, content-based restrictions on speech face strict scrutiny, and are therefore almost always unconstitutional. False statements of fact do not fall within one of these exceptions, and so the Stolen Valor Act can survive strict scrutiny only if it is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. The Court concluded that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because the Government had not shown that the statute is necessary to protect the integrity of the system of military honors–the interest the Government had identified in support of the Act.”

To achieve those same interests, Singh also noted, Congress may be able to rewrite the law more narrowly to avoid violating protected speech–no matter how bizarre it may be.

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