WASHINGTON — Free speech cases before the Supreme Court often lead justices to consider far-fetched scenarios, and Wednesday's argument over a law making it a crime to lie about having received military honors was no exception.
One after another, the justices wanted to know whether a decision upholding the Stolen Valor Act could lead down a slippery slope to new laws against such things as lying about the Holocaust, an extramarital affair, a high school diploma, college degrees or to impress a date.
"Where do you stop?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
But the justices also suggested it might be possible in this case to uphold the 2006 law anyway by reasoning that Congress has an interest in protecting medals it created to honor war heroes.
The court has in recent years overwhelmingly rejected limits on speech.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said earlier cases made clear that merely offending others is not enough to justify limiting speech.
She seemed the least willing member of the court to accept the Obama administration's defense of the law and disputed the view that the value of the highest award, the Medal of Honor, or any others have been diminished because some people lie about having received them.
The administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., defended the law as targeted to protect the integrity of the system established by Gen. George Washington in 1782.
"The Stolen Valor Act regulates a very narrowly drawn and specific category of calculated factual falsehood, a verifiably false claim that an individual has won a military honor," Verrilli said.
Civil liberties groups, writers, publishers and media outlets have told the justices they worry the law could lead to the government attempting to regulate speech.
A decision is expected by late June.