“Lying was his habit.” And the U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t lying when they described Xaviar Alvarez with a line stolen from his criminal defense lawyers in the recent decision United States v. Alvarez, which found the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. The federal law was enacted in 2005 to prevent imposters from claiming to be recipients of military decorations and medals. The Supreme Court, however, found the law to be too broad, and therefore a violation of the First Amendment. Historically, the Court has never allowed the government to limit speech merely because the content was knowingly false.
According to the facts (no lie), Mr. Alvarez attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board in Claremont, CA. He introduced himself as a retired marine and stated that he served for 25 years and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor because he was injured several times in the line of duty. None of this, however, was true.
As a result, Mr. Alvarez faced federal criminal charges. The prosecution claimed he violated the Stolen Valor Act because he falsely stated that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded by the U.S. government. Mr. Alvarez pled guilty and was sentenced.
On appeal, Mr. Alvarez’s criminal defense lawyer convinced the Ninth Circuit that the statute violated Mr. Alvarez’s First Amendment rights. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 plurality decision affirming the appellate court and noted that there are very “few categories where the law allows content-based regulation of speech,” and there is “no exception to the First Amendment for false statements.” The Court rejected prosecution arguments that the Stolen Valor Act is “necessary to preserve the integrity and purpose of the Medal,” and that false statements “have no First Amendment value in themselves.” The Court decided there was no evidence that Mr. Alvarez made the false statements in order to gain financially or obtain privileges or employment. The truth, according to the Court, was that Mr. Alvarez’s lies were merely a “pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him.”
And for the record, despite what he told the Three Valley District Board, Mr. Alvarez was not a member of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, and he was not once married to a Mexican starlet. Those were also lies.
U.S. v. Alvarez (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2537