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Supreme Court Strikes Down Stolen Valor Act

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In 2007, Xavier Alvarez introduced himself at a public meeting as a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States' highest military award for bravery. But Alvarez - a habitual prevaricator who lied about everything from playing professional hockey to marrying a Mexican starlet - had not been awarded the medal, and was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act. The Act made it a crime for anyone to "falsely represent" that he or she had been awarded a military medal. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed that the statute was an impermissible restriction of speech, and invalidated it under the First Amendment. In an opinion joined by three other Justices, Justice Kennedy accepted the government's argument that the statute protected the important interest of preserving the integrity and purpose of the military medal system, but held that it failed to meet the "exacting scrutiny" required under the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy noted the government's argument that the Court had found no First Amendment protection for false statements in other contexts, including defamation, but found no categorical exception from First Amendment protection for false statements. Generally, the restrictions on false speech are tied to some injury, while the Stolen Valor Act "targets falsity and nothing more." Justices Breyer and Kagan provided the swing votes, but reached their decision applying intermediate scrutiny. Specifically, Justice Breyer held that the statute violated the First Amendment because its objective could be met in a less burdensome way; for example, by a "more finely tailored statute" requiring a showing of specific harm or materiality. Finally, Justice Alito, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissented, writing that the speech at issue has "no value," and that "proscribing [it] does not chill any valuable speech."

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.