By Jillian Mallon
On Jan. 3, 2006, the 109th Congress of the United States enacted the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (S. 1998 (109th): Stolen Valor Act of 2005). This act was designed to protect the reputation and significance of medals or decorations awarded by the president or the Armed Forces of the United States such as the Medal of Honor, the Navy cross, the Purple Heart, and so forth. The act dictated that if a person claimed that he or she won a medal that he or she did not win, that person would have to pay a fine and serve up to six months or one year in jail.
Not one person was convicted under the Stolen Valor act until Xavier Alvarez in 2007. Alvarez was an elected water district board member in California who made claims at a public meeting that he was a retired U.S. Marine who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The FBI obtained a taped recording of the meeting and charged Alvarez with two counts of violation of the Stolen Valor Act (United States Courts , “U.S. v. Alvarez: Stolen Valor or Stolen Freedom of Speech?”, 2013). Alvarez’s lawyer claimed that the Stolen Valor Act was invalid under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The case was eventually appealed by the government to the Supreme Court which heard oral arguments concerning the case on February 22, 2012.
The Supreme Court decided that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional. The court opinion stated that content-based regulations of the First Amendment right to free speech have only been permitted in cases of defamation, libel, slander and fraud, among other rare occurrences. Though these cases usually involve misleading the public with false speech, the Supreme Court argued that in the case of United States v. Alvarez there was only false speech involved and no “legally cognizable harm”. The opinion went on to explain:
“Even when considering some instances of defamation or fraud, the court has instructed that falsity alone may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment; the statement must be a knowing and reckless falsehood” (United States v. Alvarez, 2012 WL 2427808 [June 28, 2012][No. 11-210]).
Misleading the public with false information is in fact a knowing and reckless falsehood. Xavier Alvarez knew that he hadn’t won the Congressional Medal of Honor when he announced it at a public meeting. The First Amendment should not protect untrue speech even if it exhibits no harmful threat. Lying about having a medal may not be such a serious crime that it can be justly punished with three years of probation and a $5,000 fine the way it was in Alvarez’s case. However, lying should not be protected by the First Amendment because it is knowingly false speech.
This year, 2013, a new version of the Stolen Valor Act is being drafted. NevadaCongressman Joe Heck has said that this Stolen Valor Act of 2013 will be more effectivebecause it will punish those who lie about receiving medals or rewards in order to benefitfrom these false claims instead of just the lie itself (Congressman Joe Heck Press Releases, “Heck Introduces Stolen Valor Act to Protect Integrity of Military Awards”,January 15, 2013). This act should be in place to protect the public from false statements. The new act will limits the punishment that a person who violates the act recieves. While the old act recommends an unspecified amount of fines and imprisonment, the new actsuggests a fine or no more than a year in prison (The American Legion, “SenateIntroduces Stolen Valor Act of 2013”, February 5, 2013).