High Court Asks: Is Lying Free Speech?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of Xavier Alvarez, who is appealing a criminal conviction after pleading guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act. Alvarez, a member of a Los Angeles-area municipal water board, agreed to the plea after falsely telling his fellow board members in 2007 that he was a Marine veteran and had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Stolen Valor Act prohibits falsely representing oneself as the recipient of a military honor or medal. 

The issue before the Court is whether the Act infringes upon the free speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment since – as critics have pointed out – people lie and embellish things all the time. Additionally, say critics, the statute requires no intent and is so broad that it might prohibit an actor from wearing a medal on a Broadway stage. 

On the other side, veterans groups like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars argue that imposters who masquerade as war heroes diminish the honor of those who really did put their lives on the line and sacrificed life and limb on behalf of their fellow countrymen.

It’s hard to imagine that the High Court will completely buy into the everyone-lies-so-its-no-big-deal argument, however. After all, telling the truth is a fundamental pillar of the very justice system over which the Justices preside. Witnesses are expected to testify truthfully, and lawyers are expected to make good faith arguments based on fact while exhibiting candor to the judge. Litigants are also expected to be truthful, and false statements by any of the above can be punished by perjury or contempt. 

Based on the Justices' questions at oral argument, many analysts believe that the Court has some sympathy for the purpose of the statute but may find it too broad to constitutionally achieve that purpose. Deciding cases like these – where the Justices must resolve a potentially thorny conflict between free speech rights and the proper reverence and respect for those who wear the military uniform – is exactly what the Court was designed to do.

And regardless of the outcome, expect the Court’s opinion (or opinions) to provide a thorough examination of the issues and a lengthy discussion of its reasoning for all of us to ponder in the years ahead.   


Posted: 3/7/2012 12:00:00 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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