Stolen Valor Outlawing Lies

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 4:06pm

Supreme Court considers law that makes lying about military honors a crime.

When Xavier Alvarez told a public board meeting he had won the Congressional Medal of Honor he was lying, and breaking a federal law that protects military honors and the heroes who've earned them.

His attorney argued before the Supreme Court Wednesday that the 2005 Stolen Valor Act passed by Congress was unconstitutionally broad, and that even some lies are protected by the First Amendment.

"What we've argued is there needs to be harm associated with a lie in order for it to be unprotected under the First Amendment," said attorney Jonathan Libby.

The justices struggled with two central questions: Whether lies have any First Amendment value and when someone lies about a military honor, who is harmed?

Perjury isn't protected free speech.

Neither is defamation or lying to a federal officer.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices the government has an interest in protecting its highest awards.

It's an argument made by veterans groups as well.

"It doesn't diminish my accomplishment, but what it does is, when they are exposed as a phony, it puts question marks over my service," says decorated Vietnam veteran Doug Sterner.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked, "Where do you stop? Can Congress pass a law to prevent people from lying about having a high school diploma?"

Justice Elena Kagan asked whether the government could go after lying political candidates or cheating spouses.

"The trouble, "Justice Stephen Breyer said, "is you can think of 10,000 circumstances."

Still, some of the justices seemed less than convinced that punishing a lie about a medal would chill free speech.

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