Supreme Court justices were looking for a way to protect top military medals without opening the door to further government intrusions on speech. On Feb. 22, the High Court heard arguments over a law that makes it a crime to lie about having been awarded top military honors.
According to news reports, some justices said they worried that upholding the Stolen Valor Act could lead to other limits on speech, including laws that might make it illegal to lie about an extramarital affair or a college degree, or to impress a date.
“Where do you stop?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked at one point.
But Roberts later joined other justices in indicating that the court could make clear that, if it upheld the law, it would only be endorsing an effort to prevent people from demeaning the system of military honors that was established by Gen. George Washington in 1782.
Jonathan Libby, the federal public defender arguing against the law, said Congress’ intent is hard to discern because it passed the legislation without any hearings.
Libby’s client, Xavier Alvarez, was one of the first people prosecuted for violating the Stolen Valor Act. Alvarez falsely claimed to have been both a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient. He never served in the armed forces.
Libby said public exposure of lies about military medals is preferable to prosecution. Alvarez “still was exposed for who he was, which was a liar,” Libby said.
The two federal appeals courts that have considered the issue have come to different conclusions. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the law in Alvarez’s case. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the law in the case of another false claim of military valor.
A decision is expected by late June.
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