In a ruling that American war heroes will see as a slap in the face, the Supreme Court decided Monday that falsely claiming combat medals and military honors is protected speech under the First Amendment.
U.S. v. Alvarez put on trial the Stolen Valor Act, a law prohibiting individuals from claiming military honors and medals they did not earn. According to the 2005 act, falsely claiming to have earned combat decorations comes with a six-month prison sentence, extended to one year for those who claim the Medal of Honor.
The 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy with Justice Stephen Breyer filing a concurring opinion, found that the First Amendment does shield military phonies who only claim to have earned their awards. Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas filed a dissent.
The decision upheld a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found that California man Xavier Alvarez, who claimed he was a Medal of Honor recipient when elected to a local water board position, was simply exercising his free speech rights with the claim.
“The American people do not need the assistance of a government prosecution to express their high regard for the special place that military heroes hold in our tradition,” Kennedy said in the majority opinion.
Veterans’ service organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Officers Association of America, have been outspoken in support of the Stolen Valor Act and have condemned the 9th Circuit’s actions in overturning the law.
Military historian Doug Sterner, who spoke with Human Events last week and whose wife, Pam, helped draft the original stolen valor legislation, said the case was about more than the right to tell “big fish” stories.
“It is a pattern of unlawful activity, a pattern of deception, a pattern of taking advantage of people,” he said.
“Stolen valor isn’t lying; it’s impersonation. It is stealing the identity of a wounded warrior or a legitimate veteran or an American hero.”
Sterner encounters between 200 and 300 military phonies every year, he said, and find their tall tales are typically used to build trust and to perpetrate other criminal acts.