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Stolen Valor: Military Lies Don't Make You a Criminal, Just a Jerk

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and struck down the Stolen Valor Act on Thursday in a 6-3 decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy kicked off the plurality opinion for the Court with the best opener of the 2011 Term: "Lying was his habit. Xavier Alvarez, the respondent here, lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico."

Despite Justice Kennedy's very public swipe at Alvarez's tale-telling ways, the Court ultimately ruled in the faux-military-man's favor.

Congress adopted the Stolen Valor Act in 2005. The Act makes it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals, and provides an enhanced penalty if the Congressional Medal of Honor is involved. Alvarez ran afoul of the Act when he announced during his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After pleading guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act, Alvarez argued that the Act violated the First Amendment.

In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law was unconstitutional, noting that, under the reasoning for the Act, "There would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age, or financial status on or Facebook, or falsely representing to one's mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway."

In affirming the Ninth Circuit, the Kennedy plurality -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined -- concluded that allowing the Government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. Such power has no clear limiting principle.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer, (joined by Justice Kagan), said that the Stolen Valor Act fails intermediate scrutiny and violates the First Amendment because, as presently drafted, it works disproportionate constitutional harm.

Justice Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.

As SCOTUSblog notes, the Court's ruling in U.S. v. Alvarez leaves the door open for Congress to reconsider the law under less restrictive terms.

Any efforts to modify the law, however, will likely take a backseat to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act following Thursday's individual mandate ruling.

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