By Aaron H. Caplan, a law professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles
The “Stolen Valor Act” is a federal statute that made it a crime to falsely say that one had received a military medal, even if that false statement was not made as a part of any scheme to counterfeit or defraud and even if no one believed the statement. In United States v. Alvarez, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the 8-1 majority of my First Amendment students that the Act violates the constitution. The government has power to punish lies that cause concrete harms (such as fraud, defamation, or perjury), but it may not punish lies simply because they are distasteful. The proper response upon hearing distasteful lies is to counter them by speaking the truth.
I believe – like a majority of my students – that the Court decided this case correctly, but the reasoning used by a majority of Justices has the potential to establish constitutional standards that are less speech-protective than meets the eye. To begin with, there was no majority opinion. The four-justice plurality opinion by Justice Kennedy (joined by Roberts, Ginsburg and Sotomayor) was joined by a two-justice concurrence by Justice Breyer (joined by Kagan). Both opinions seemed to readily accept the notion that the government had a valid interest in controlling what people think about military medals as a means to protect the “integrity” or reputation of the government’s chosen symbols. As I have written previously, I do not think this kind of mind control is a legitimate government interest at all, let alone a strong one. In this, I seem to be outvoted by all nine members of the Supreme Court (and for what it was worth, all of my students).