WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will decide whether people who lie about their military courage can be sent to federal prison.
On Monday, in a closely watched case out of California, the court agreed to consider the so-called Stolen Valor Act and the punishment it metes out to make-believe heroes. The case pits veterans groups against free-speech advocates, provoking serious questions about what kind of falsehoods the government may punish.
"Lies about oneself are commonplace in day-to-day social interactions," Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. acknowledged in a legal brief.
Verrilli, nonetheless, is urging the court on behalf of the Obama administration to uphold the 2006 Stolen Valor Act as well as the misdemeanor conviction of a one-time local water district official in California named Xavier Alvarez.
But the stakes could go well beyond military wannabes, making the case called United States v. Alvarez one of the most anticipated First Amendment challenges of the court's 2011 term.
"If the Act is constitutional ... then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook," warned Judge Milan D. Smith of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 9th Circuit, which covers nine Western states, struck down the law last year. Other appellate circuit courts have likewise been hearing challenges to the law.
Colorado resident Rick Glen Strandlof, for instance, faced criminal charges for falsely claiming to have been awarded the Purple Heart for wounds and the Silver Star for heroism in the battle of Fallujah during the Iraq war. Strandlof used the alias Rick Duncan in establishing a group called the Colorado Veterans Alliance.
A trial judge blocked prosecutors from pursuing the case against Strandlof after concluding the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment.
Alvarez, too, argues his prosecution ran counter to First Amendment free-speech protections.
In 2007, while serving as an elected board member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in southern California, Alvarez announced at a board meeting that he was a wounded Marine veteran who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism.
In fact, Alvarez had never served in the military, and it was easy enough to determine he was not among the 85 or so living Medal of Honor winners. The FBI investigated, and prosecutors charged Alvarez with violating the 2006 law.
Passed unanimously in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the politically popular legislation imposes prison sentences of up to one year on those who "falsely represent" either in writing or orally that they have received military decorations. The law covers false representations made before any kind of audience.
"Unfortunately, the significance of these medals is being devalued by phony war heroes who fabricate their honors and military careers," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said during the brief House debate. "They do so for greed and selfishness, and disrespect the service and sacrifice of our military heroes."
Alvarez eventually pleaded guilty, while retaining the possibility of appealing the constitutionality of the law. He received three years of probation and was fined $3,000.
The Obama administration contends the law performs the "vital function" of protecting "the integrity and effectiveness of the military honors system." False statements, the administration adds, are typically given less protection under the First Amendment.
Skeptics, who range from the American Civil Liberties Union to some prominent conservative judges, counter that the law sets a dangerous precedent.
"Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic' and 'I didn't inhale,' could all be made into crimes," 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, a Republican appointee, warned in a concurring opinion.
Reading the judicial tea leaves, House members already are considering a bill authored by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and backed by 51 lawmakers that would modify the Stolen Valor Act to focus on people who specifically profit from their military lies.
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