June 28, 2012

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Alvarez

On June 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Alvarez, No. 11-210, holding that the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment. The Act, 18 U.S.C. § 704, made it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals and provided an enhanced penalty if the Congressional Medal of Honor was involved. Defendant Xavier Alvarez was charged under the Act based on his 2007 statement at a water district board meeting that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California rejected Alvarez's claim that the statute was invalid under the First Amendment. He pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal on First Amendment grounds. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Act violated the First Amendment.

A plurality of the Supreme Court affirmed. Justice Kennedy announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor) concluding that the Act infringed on speech protected by the First Amendment. The plurality agreed that the Act was a content-based restriction on speech (it sought to control and suppress all false statements on one particular subject) and held that mere nondefamatory falsehoods do not fall within the few categories of speech for which the Court has historically permitted content-based restrictions. The justices therefore subjected the statute to exacting scrutiny and found the government had failed to show a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. The plurality also found that less restrictive means existed to accomplish the government's goal of protecting the integrity of military awards (for example, the creation of a publicly available winners database). The four justices also distinguished the three examples the government offered of false-speech regulation that courts have generally upheld (i.e., prohibitions on making false statements to government officials, perjury statutes, and statutes prohibiting impersonation of government officials).

Justices Breyer wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, which was joined by Justice Kagan. The concurrence took the view that the Court should apply intermediate scrutiny to the Act. It observed that false statements are less likely than true statements to make a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas, but recognized that criminalizing false statements threatens to chill the kind of speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment. The concurring opinion also noted that although the Act had substantial justification, the government's objective could be achieved in less burdensome ways (for example, by enacting a statute that requires a showing of harm).

Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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