Free Speech Groups Applaud Supreme Court’s Rejection of “Stolen Valor” Act

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The Supreme Court today held that the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about having received military honors, violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

“Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought,” Justice Kennedy wrote in a plurality decision.

David Horowitz, executive director of Media Coalition, said that “ultimately, the question before the court was whether the government has the power to prosecute people who tell lies, even if there is no harm and no fraud involved. As Justice Kennedy acknowledged, the best way to counter false speech is always more speech – not censorship, and certainly not criminal prosecution.”

In February 2012, Media Coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and others that argued, while defamation and fraud are recognized historic exceptions to the First Amendment, there has never been an exception for false speech. In his opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “The court has never endorsed the categorical rule the government advances: that false statements receive no First Amendment protection. Our prior decisions have not confronted a measure, like the Stolen Valor Act, that targets falsity and nothing more.”

 Xavier Alvarez, a local official in California, was prosecuted for claiming that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Alvarez’s claim was false — as were his claims (not the subject of the prosecution) that he had played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and had married a Mexican starlet. But, the court held there is no “general exception to the First Amendment for false statements.” Justice Kennedy reasoned, “Were the court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition.”

“This is a great decision in an important case,” said ABFFE President Chris Finan. “In falsely claiming that he received the Medal of Honor, Mr. Alvarez was guilty of a despicable act. But the Supreme Court recognized giving the government the power to punish lies threatens free speech. Revealing liars is the job of the press, not the government.”