When can the government punish liars? The question is being debated today in the Supreme Court, as it hears oral arguments in United States v. Alvarez. In this case from Southern California, the defendant said during a public meeting that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He hadn't. The government prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it a federal crime for any person to "falsely represent himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any [military] decoration or medal" -- even if no medals or related documents are counterfeited, and even if no one is financially harmed or suffers other personal injuries as a result of the false statement. It would be constitutionally acceptable for the government to prosecute someone who told this or any other lie as part of a scheme to defraud others. But in this case, the defendant's bogus boasts were not used to cheat anyone, but only to scratch some inner itch within his own personality. As it happens, his lies were quickly and publicly exposed, and he was ostracized by his community. Alvarez's behavior was certainly undesirable, but may he be sent to prison simply because society considers his lies morally objectionable?
I previously wrote about Alvarez for the American Constitution Society blog in 2010 when the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 that the law was unconstitutional. Last fall, I asked nine students in my First Amendment class to sit as their own Supreme Court, applying existing free speech precedents to this novel situation. As a teacher, I was hoping that the class would be evenly divided to allow a lively classroom debate. There was plenty of debate, but in the end my justices reached a strong majority position -- by an 8 to 1 margin -- that the law was unconstitutional. They reasoned that the Stolen Valor Act punishes speech that does not fall into any of the narrowly defined categories of less-protected speech where the government is allowed to punish based on content. False statements that are part of a scheme to defraud are one proscribable category. False statements that damage another person's reputation (defamatory speech) are another. But my students overwhelmingly rejected the idea that these and similar categories were merely examples of a broader category of false statements in general. These students saw a great danger in allowing the government to decide what counts as the truth, unless such a judgment is required to redress an identifiable harm to others that the speech caused. Governmental action against speech is not justified merely because the speech is offensive to many (or most) people. They noted the historically-proven risk that such laws could be used against the government's political opponents, and argued that the truthfulness of Alvarez's speech should be judged in the marketplace of ideas -- which it was -- and not in a criminal courtroom.
A few months after our in-class exercise, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued a 3-0 decision in United States v. Strandlof that disagreed with the Ninth Circuit decision in Alvarez. My dissenting student was elated that his position was now supported by four out of the six federal appeals court judges who had considered the case. We will learn later this year whether the U.S. Supreme Court will dare to disagree with the collective judgment of a majority of my Loyola students.