Sunday, November 19, 2017
Opinion

Supreme Court was right to reject Stolen Valor Act

RECOMMENDED READING


Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in eastern Los Angeles County, won an important victory in the Supreme Court last week. But he probably won't want to frame the leading opinion and hang it on his wall.

"Lying was his habit," begins Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion. "Xavier Alvarez, the respondent here, lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005."

Nevertheless, despite Alvarez's almost comic mendacity, the court overturned his conviction, ruling 6-3 that the Stolen Valor Act — which makes it a crime to falsely claim military honors — violated the First Amendment. It was the correct decision.

Congress' justification for the Stolen Valor Act was to prevent damage to the reputation and meaning of military medals; it was inspired by legitimate solicitude for war heroes. But no one seriously believes people will think less of the Medal of Honor because someone pretends to possess one. If anything, anger over such a fraud reinforces the esteem in which the decoration is held.

And a lie like Alvarez's has a short shelf life. (A list of actual Medal of Honor winners is only a Google search away.) As Kennedy pointed out: "The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie." Alvarez, for instance, was ridiculed online and in the media for his lie.

Kennedy also questioned the broad sweep of the law, which, he noted, would have criminalized Alvarez's lie not just at a public meeting but even if he made it in a "personal, whispered conversation" in his own home. What's more, it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.

Although the court has refused to protect false statements in cases of libel and fraud, it has recognized that "some false statements are inevitable if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views" in public and private conversation.

Unfortunately, Kennedy's eloquent opinion was joined only by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred in the result but wrote a separate, more grudging opinion that held out the possibility that Congress could enact a "more finely tailored statute" to deal with false statements about military honors. Before rushing to act on that suggestion, Congress should make sure that liars like Alvarez are actually deriving financial benefit from their phony war stories, and that the offense can't be dealt with under existing law.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times

Comments

Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "I’m pleading to my brothers. You ...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise — for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system — one for men, another for wo...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Kriseman’s own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

The University of South Florida recently surpassed its $1 billion fundraising goal, continuing a current trend of exceeding expectations. At 61 years old — barely middle age among higher education institutions — USF has grown up quickly. It now boast...
Published: 11/14/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made payi...
Published: 11/14/17

Editorial: Deputies’ rescue reflects best in law enforcement

The bravery two Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies showed a week ago is a credit to them and reflects the professionalism of the office.Deputies Benjamin Thompson and Trent Migues responded at dusk Nov. 11 after 82-year-old Leona Evans of Webster...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/17/17

Another voice: An untrustworthy deal with Russia

President Donald Trump’s latest defense of Russian leader Vladimir Putin included — along with a bow to his denials of meddling in the U.S. election — an appeal to pragmatism. "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,"...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/14/17