Update: The Stolen Valor Act, a law signed by President George W. Bush, making it a crime to falsely claim past military service, has been struck down by the Supreme Court, 6-3. The opinions suggested that the law can be re-written more narrowly and be found constitutional but that the current law, as written, sweeps too broadly and must be struck down.
As Amy Howe of SCOTUS Blog explains: "In another year, [this case] would be high-profile in its own right. Alvarez involves very interesting First Amendment issues ... but tomorrow it will be a mere footnote in history."
Here's a look at why this issue is so important.
Original post and background on United States v. Alvarez: As the Supreme Court gets ready to sit down for its March session next Monday, all attention is fixated on the three-scheduled days of oral arguments centered on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
However, while the health care debate will certainly get its day in court (and on PolicyMic, I promise) there are a number of opinions expected to be signed out in the first days of the March term that carry weighty implications for the future of our constitutional rights.
Chief among them is the case of United States v. Alvarez, which asks the Court to determine whether a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about military service violates the First Amendment.
President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law in 2006 following a rash of media reports surrounding individuals who lied about military service for a variety of reasons. The act makes it a crime to represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal, with violations punishable by up to a year in prison.
Xavier Alvarez, a then-elected member of a local government board, was charged with violating the act after he introduced himself at a meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years” who, “back in 1987, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor” for alleged wounds suffered in combat.
The problem was that Alvarez was never actually awarded any medal or distinctions by the military due in large part to the fact that he had never served a single day as a member of the military. After being charged and convicted, Alvarez sued, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights.
While the law is certainly well intentioned, it is written haphazardly, creating a trap for the wary and unwary alike. The law, as written, sweeps far too broadly. It unquestionably ensnares political dissidents and film stars just as effectively as fraudsters and conmen.
By making it a crime to make “false claims” without needing to demonstrate criminal intent or harm caused, Congress has made it a crime for a child to wear their parents’ t-shirt that says “I was awarded a purple heart.” It has made every actor in Hollywood that portrays a soldier in a movie a federal criminal every time they step out of wardrobe.
The law in its current state must, and likely will, be struck down as a violation of the First Amendment.
That said the idea behind this law is clearly not unconstitutional. While the First Amendment protects many things, it does not protect lying with intent to harm. The legal system calls that fraud and that certainly receives no constitutional shielding.
It is no argument that our servicemen and women deserve to be recognized and honored for their sacrifices and commitments. Legislation intended to protect their service from those seeking to make personal gains via impersonation is both reasonable and understandable.
If Congress wishes to ensure that the intent of this law continues to be carried out, as evidence suggests it certainly does need to be, then Congress must implement a harm requirement to target the law at the liars seeking to leverage unearned valor to advance their own interests. Until that happens, the Court will likely find it to fail in passing constitutional muster and rightly so.