(WASHINGTON) — In the few days left in its current term, the nation’s highest court is set to decide a controversial case over whether people who lie about military honors should be protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause.
California man Xavier Alvarez is challenging a law known as the Stolen Valor Act; federal legislation that in 2006 made it illegal for people to claim to have won or wear military medals or ribbons they did not earn. Alvarez was convicted of violating the act in 2007 after he publicly claimed to have won the country’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Alvarez never served in the military.
Alvarez was sentenced to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service, but he and his lawyer appealed the decision, saying that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional — essentially that it violates a person’s right to lie.
“The Stolen Valor Act criminalizes pure speech in the form of bare falsity, a mere telling of a lie,” Alvarez’s attorney, Jonathan Libby said in February. “It doesn’t matter whether the lie was told in a public meeting or in a private conversation with a friend or family member.”
An appeals court agreed and called the Stolen Valor Act “facially unconstitutional.”
In its argument before the Supreme Court, the government said that such specific lies fall under a special category of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment — when the speech could do harm.
“False claims make the public skeptical of all claims to have received awards, and they inhibit the government’s efforts to ensure that the armed services and the public perceive awards as going only to the most deserving few,” the government said.
According to several veterans well acquainted with false war stories, claiming you’re a medal-winner can be “more than just lying.”
“It’s not the barroom loudmouth that anyone is interested in,” said Don Shipley, a former SEAL who has been given unique access to the SEAL personnel database so he can root out fakers. “People tend to believe what they’re told, they use that… They do an awful lot of damage.”
Brandon Webb, another former SEAL and founder of the special operations website SOFREP.com, agreed with Shipley that the law was important for going after more than the occasional barstool liar.
Webb told ABC News in February it especially angered him “seeing people take advantage of unknowing good people who are trusting in their story, [people who] use people to get money out of them, get positions.”
“Nothing fires me up more than running into these phony Navy SEALs and knowing that I lost over a dozen friends that sacrificed for their country and now these guys are out there trying to take credit,” Webb said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Christopher Dawson, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Ray Sanchez, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN