The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of Xavier Alvarez who was charged with a violation of the Stolen Valor Act for his fraudulent public claim of having received the Medal of Honor. The case reached the high court on appeal from the 9th circuit which held that the act, which outlaws fraudulent claims of having received military awards or honors, was an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. The government appealed that decision and was joined by The American Legion and others in asking the court to uphold the constitutionality of the act.
Alvarez has never served a day in the military. However, after being elected to a local water board in California, he made the claim that he was a Medal of Honor recipient. While even his own defense attorney noted that Alvarez was an inveterate liar, Alvarez was nonetheless supported by various free-speech advocates who felt that the statute was too broad.
Although it is dangerous to read much into the questions posed by the justices during this hearing, most questions fell into two camps: 1. What is the nature of the harm, if any, caused by fraudulent claims of military heroism? 2. Would upholding the statute have a chilling effect on other forms of speech, such as claims made in political campaigns.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in particular, seemed unwilling to accept the argument that no harm occurs from these lies. "My theory is that it does hurt the medal, the purpose, the objective, the honor, for people falsely to go around saying that they have this medal when they don’t."
Justice Antonin Scalia, another First Amendment stalwart, noted that perhaps deference should be made to the Congress. "When Congress passed this legislation, I assume it did so because it thought that the value of the awards that these courageous members of the armed forces were receiving was being demeaned and diminished."
On the question of whether upholding the act would chill other protected speech, the public defender for Alvarez, Jonathan Libby, seemed to concede that no such chilling effect would take place. When asked by Justice Elena Kagan what truthful speech would be chilled by upholding the act, Libby said, "It’s not that it may necessarily chill any truthful speech. I mean, it’s — we certainly concede that one typically knows whether or not one has won a medal or not. We certainly — we concede that point."
Justice Kagan responded with surprise, noting "That’s a big concession, Mr. Libby."
It may be months before the high court rules on the case.