Supreme Court Strikes Down Stolen Valor Act

A law meant to outlaw lying about military honors was struck down 6-3 by the Supreme Court. The court says the law, known as the Stolen Valor Act, was written so broadly that it infringes on free speech. Some of the justices suggested that the law could be rewritten to focus only on those who lie about military awards in order to gain benefit.

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More now on the Supreme Court where health care was not the only case decided today. The justices struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to lie about receiving military decorations or medals. The Court ruled it may be unethical to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor, but it's protected speech under the First Amendment.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that veterans groups are disappointed, but they say the decision leaves room for Congress to try again.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The Stolen Valor Act, passed in 2005, was aimed at people like Xavier Alvarez. When Alvarez stood up at a California water board meeting, he introduced himself as a veteran and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lying about the medal violated that law and could have led to a year in prison. But today, the Supreme Court said Congress cannot outlaw lies no matter how offensive they are.

Gary Bostwick wrote an amicus brief opposing the law for the First Amendment Coalition.

GARY BOSTWICK: Almost all First Amendment cases involve people that have done something that most of society doesn't like.

ABRAMSON: The High Court said today, we don't have to like people who lie about military honors, but we can't necessarily send them to jail. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a plurality that there has to be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. But Kennedy said this lie caused no direct injury, veterans groups disagree, saying these falsehoods do harm them.

Mark Seavey is with the American Legion.

MARK SEAVEY: Organizations like the American Legion, Soldier's Angels and these other groups who are raising money for actual wounded veterans, when there are so many people out there claiming to be wounded veterans that really aren't.

ABRAMSON: Again, the Court said there are other less invasive remedies, counter speech, the ability of journalists and the public to expose lies. Or Justice Kennedy said, a government created database of medal winners could easily unmask frauds.

And Jonathan Libby, who represented Alvarez, says that's exactly what happened to his client.

JONATHAN LIBBY: Mr. Alvarez was exposed as a liar. He was pilloried in the press. His reputation was destroyed and that's what should happen.

ABRAMSON: But in a dissent, Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said that's not enough to preserve the dignity of these honors, which, according to many, are under constant assault. Justice Alito's dissent noted press accounts saying that 600 Virginia residents were suspected of falsely claiming to win the Medal of Honor in a single year.

Author B.G. Burkett wrote an entire book about the problem. "Stolen Valor" helped motivate the authors of this law.

B.G. BURKETT: The fact that there is no legal restriction now, it just means the problem is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.

ABRAMSON: The dissenting justices noted that Congress, long ago, made it a federal offense for anyone to wear, manufacture or sell certain military decorations without authorization. And the dissent points to the many laws against perjury, which sanction a form of lying. But the Court found that those statutes are designed to prevent actual harm, to the military, or to the justice system.

Attorney Gary Bostwick says there has never been a law that outlaws simple lying.

BOSTWICK: Unless it harmed someone's interests in some fashion in a very palpable way.

ABRAMSON: Supporters of the law took some comfort from the fact that Justices Breyer and Kagan wrote a narrow concurrence; they agreed the law as drawn overreaches. But they said Congress could take another, more narrow shot.

Mark Seavey of the American Legion says Congress may need to stipulate some harm from these lies.

SEAVEY: Like that the individual is lying for some sort of pecuniary gain or some sort of material gain, which would pass constitutional muster.

ABRAMSON: NPR signed an amicus brief in this case, in support of those who challenged the now-defunct Stolen Valor Act.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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