Stolen Valor Act – Is it a Crime to Lie?


Earlier today, the Supreme Court agreed to review the merits of the Stolen Valor Act. The legislation, signed into law in 2006, makes it illegal for individuals to falsely claim that they have been awarded any U.S. medal or decoration.

Specifically the highest court is going to review the case of Xavier Alvarez, the first person to be found guilty under the Stolen Valor Act. In 2007, at his first meeting as an elected director for the Three Valley Water District Board, Alvarez introduced himself as a retired marine with 25 years experience and a Medal of Honor recipient. He had never even served in any U.S. military department.

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In a lower court, Alvarez pleaded guilty on the condition that he could appeal on the grounds that his First Amendment (free speech) rights had been violated. He was fined $5,000 and 400 hours of community service. A year ago, the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard his plea. In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the Stolen Valor Act had violated Alvarez’s constitutional rights. One of the appellate judges, Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., wrote as part of the decision, “The sad fact is most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time”. The two judges in majority added that although Alvarez’ lies were disrespectful, he did not intend to, nor did he cause, any harm to anyone.

Representing the petitioner for the case United States v. Xavier Alvarez, No. 11-210 will be U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. He has stated that certain lies should not be protected under the First Amendment, such as fraud cases where offenders swindle people out of their money or incidents of defamation when someone’s character is falsely and negatively represented.

It will be very interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules. It leads to questions, such as: What defines a criminal act? Should there be exceptions to the First Amendment? If the act is not hurting anyone, should it be illegal? These types of issues come up in academic settings while students are completing a criminology degree, a legal studies degree or a public policy degree. While pursuing a career in law, criminal justice or politics, you too will have the chance to think, discuss and debate about such questions of immorality, legal merits and the evolution of legislation.

Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and CNN Justice