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Tenth Circuit rules criminalizing false claims of military honors constitutional

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] on Friday that the Stolen Valor Act (SVA) [text], which criminalizes the act of falsely claiming to have received a medal from the US military, is constitutional and not a violation of the First Amendment [text] right to freedom of speech. The SVA imposes a six month prison sentence on anyone who falsely claims to have received a military service medal or a one year sentence if the individual claimed to have received a Congressional Medal of Honor [official website]. The court stated that "knowingly false factual statements are not intrinsically protected under the First Amendment" as long as the law punishing false statements provides "breathing space" for protected speech: "knowingly false statements, in contrast even to incendiary ideas, are no part of the 'the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.' Just because controversial ideas and opinions merit constitutional protection does not mean false facts deserve the same immunity." The court further stated that there was no danger of the law suppressing free speech, because it only criminalizes knowing misstatements of fact and does not criminalize political speech, criticism or parody.

The Supreme Court [official website] is set to hear arguments in February in US v. Alvarez [JURIST report; docket] to decide whether the SVA is constitutional. The case is an appeal from a ruling [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] that the SVA is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The Ninth Circuit held that the speech prohibited under the Stolen Valor Act did not fit within the narrow categories of false speech held to be beyond the First Amendment's "protective sweep." The Stolen Valor Act was unanimously approved by the Senate and signed into law by former president George W. Bush in 2006. The act broadened provisions of previous US law and criminalizes the unauthorized wear, manufacture, sale or written or oral claim of any military decorations and medals.

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