Constitutional Free Speech Invalidates False Claims of Military Honor Act

The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Alvarez, Case No. 11-210 (June 28, 2012) (available here) ruled that the Stolen Valor Act, 18 U.S.C. sec 204(b) and (c) was an unconstitutional abridgement of Free Speech under the First Amendment. The Act made criminal false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals, such as the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor.

Lying was Defendant Alvarez’s habit. He “lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie [was alleged to] violate[] a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. 18 U. S. C. §704.” Slip opn. p. 1 (herein “P. 1”).

As a general matter, the First Amendment “means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content… Instead, content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted, as a general matter, only when confined to the few ‘historic and traditional categories [of expression] long familiar to the bar,’ Id., at ___ (slip op., at 5) (quoting Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N. Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U. S. 105, 127 (1991) (KENNEDY, J., concurring in judgment)). Among these categories are advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action, see Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U. S. 444 (1969) (per curiam); obscenity, see, e.g., Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15 (1973); defamation, see, e.g., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964) (providing substantial protection for speech about public figures); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U. S. 323 (1974) (imposing some limits on liability for defaming a private figure); speech integral to criminal conduct, see, e.g., Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U. S. 490 (1949); so-called ‘fighting words,’ see Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942); child pornography, see New York v. Ferber, 458 U. S. 747 (1982); fraud, see Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U. S. 748, 771 (1976); true threats, see Watts v. United States, 394 U. S. 705 (1969) (per curiam); and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the government has the power to prevent, see Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U. S. 697, 716 (1931), although a restriction under the last category is most difficult to sustain, see New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U. S. 713 (1971) (per curiam). These categories have a historical foundation in the Court’s free speech tradition. The vast realm of free speech and thought always protected in our tradition can still thrive, and even be furthered, by adherence to those categories and rules.” P. 5.

Falsity alone does not normally suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment. In “some instances of defamation and fraud, moreover, the Court has been careful to instruct that … [t]he statement must be a knowing or reckless falsehood.” P. 7. See Sullivan, supra, at 280 (prohibiting recovery of damages for a defamatory falsehood made about a public official unless the statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”); see also Garrison, supra, at 73 (“[E]ven when the utterance is false, the great principles of the Constitution which secure freedom of expression . . . preclude attaching adverse consequences to any except the knowing or reckless falsehood”); Illinois ex rel. Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates, Inc., 538 U. S. 600, 620 (2003) (“False statement alone does not subject a fundraiser to fraud liability”). P. 7.

“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. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.” P. 11.

“The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth… The First Amendment itself ensures the right to respond to speech we do not like, and for good reason. Freedom of speech and thought flows not from the beneficence of the state but from the inalienable rights of the person. And suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so. Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse. These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates.” PP. 15-16.

In summary, the Court ruled that such statutes, like the Stolen Valor Act must include an element of fraud or misrepresentation, not just falsity, to pass muster under the First Amendment. P. 7 (fraud), 11 (material gain), 13 (casual link between restriction and injury to be presented).

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