United States v. Alvarez

Justia Summary

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals and provides an enhanced penalty if the Congressional Medal of Honor is involved, 18 U. S. C. 704 (b),(c). After pleading guilty to falsely claiming that he had received the Medal of Honor, Alvarez challenged the Act as unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit held that the Act is invalid under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court affirmed. Characterizing the law as a content-based restriction on protected speech, the Court applied the “most exacting scrutiny.” Falsity alone does not take speech outside the First Amendment. While the government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the Medal of Honor is beyond question, the First Amendment requires a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented; that link was not established. The government had no evidence that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims or that counter-speech, such as the ridicule Alvarez received online and in the press, would not suffice to achieve its interest. The law does not represent the “least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” The government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system by creating a database of Medal winners accessible and searchable. Dissenting Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas viewed the Act as significantly limited and necessary to the important governmental objective.

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