Tall tale equals jail?

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif., has a long and complicated history with a little thing called the truth.  His whoppers have includes such statements as having dated a Mexican actress, playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, being shot down in Vietnam and working as a police officer.

The whopper which could get him thrown in jail was his tale of having served as a marine for 25 years and that he was awarded a medal of honor. What he didn’t know was that particular lie is a crime under the Stolen Valor Act.  The Stolen Valor Act was passed in 2006. The purpose of the act was to discourage people from falsely claiming they had won medals of honor and essentially protect the integrity of those who had actually been commended for their work in fighting for our country.

Alvarez was an elected member of a Los Angeles area water board. This case stems from Alvarez’s statements made at a public meeting in 2007; a year after the statute was enacted. He stated “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”

None of it was true. Someone passed along a recording of this public meeting to the FBI. Alvarez was arrested and prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act.

The indictment was criticized as a violation of the First Amendment, arguing that Americans have a free-speech right to make false and outrageous claims about themselves without facing criminal prosecution. A federal judge upheld the indictment, but a US appeals court panel reversed.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Feb. 22.  In earlier cases, the Supreme Court has allowed Nazis to march in an Illinois neighborhood of Holocaust survivors, allowed protestors to disrupt military funerals, and has upheld the sale of violent video games to minors.

The government argued that false statements that cause real and significant harm are not entitled to First Amendment protection.  Alvarez’s lawyer appeared to concede that falsely claiming to have won a medal of honor does not chill free speech.

There are valid points to each side. To falsely claim to be a medal recipient takes way from those who bravely and heroically served our country. On the other hand, public humiliation and being ostracized by one’s community for those lies appears to be punishment enough. Criminalizing telling certain types of lies goes right to the heart of the First Amendment. We will be watching in anticipation to see what the court does. A ruling allowing the Act to stand will certainly have far reaching repercussions with how far the government can regulate all types of speech.

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