The US Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday ruled 6-3 [decision, PDF] that a law criminalizing the making of false claims of military honors violates the First Amendment [text]. In United States v. Alvarez [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], the Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act (SVA) [text], which makes it a federal crime to lie about having received a military medal or honor. Xavier Alvarez was convicted under the SVA in 2007 after he announced at a public water district board meeting that he was a retired Marine and had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the government cannot punish statements merely because they are knowingly false:
Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle ... Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment. But the Stolen Valor Act is not so limited in its reach. 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.Kennedy was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan filed separate concurring opinions.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. In his opinion, Alito said he would uphold the law in keeping with the tradition of barring other serious untruths, including fraud, perjury and defamation: "The lies covered by the Stolen Valor Act have no intrinsic value and thus merit no First Amendment protection." The court's decision upheld a ruling [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit striking down the law. The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in February.