"Xavier Alvarez lied." So begins Mr. Alvarez's own brief -- which also notes that he has been called a "phony," an "idiot," a "jerk" and the "ultimate slime" -- in a case being argued today before the United States Supreme Court. Fortunately for Mr. Alvarez, the question before the Court is not whether he lied, but the extent to which the federal government can criminalize lies. In 2007, Alvarez falsely introduced himself at a public meeting as a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor. Alvarez's lies were quickly exposed, but federal prosecutors indicted him under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which provides criminal penalties for false claims of receipt of military medals, with an enhanced penalty (up to a year in prison) for falsely claiming to have received the Medal of Honor.
Alvarez was convicted, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Act violates the First Amendment. The government claims that the Act serves an "important" interest: preserving the integrity and credibility of the military medals program. Critics of the Act, however, note its startling breadth -- it requires no showing that anyone was deceived or otherwise harmed by the misrepresentation, and makes no exception for satire, parody or other misrepresentations made in works of art. The Supreme Court has held that "there is no constitutional value in false statements of facts," but it did so in establishing the limits of civil tort liability for defamation. By contrast, criminalizing false statements like Alvarez's threatens to establish a federal "truth police" with the power to punish "idiots" and "jerks," simply for being so. The military's medal program has survived for more than 200 years without the protection of the Stolen Valor Act, and the Court should find the Act unconstitutional.