The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because of the limits it places on free speech. The case, U.S. vs. Alvarez, involved a defendant’s false claim that he had won a Congressional Medal of Honor. Under the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime for a person to falsely claim to have been awarded military decorations, his lie is a crime punishable by up to a year in prison.
The ACLU of Colorado applauds the ruling. Judge Milan D. Smith’s opinion echoes that of Judge Robert E. Blackburn, who also found the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional in an almost-identical case here in Colorado, U.S. vs. Strandlof. The ACLU of Colorado filed an amicus brief asking Judge Blackburn to throw out the SVA on First Amendment grounds. Judge Blackburn agreed, finding that the Act “is justified by a desire to curb speech about a specific topic,” which, unless serving a very compelling government interest, is unconstitutional.
Constitutional protections do not cease to apply simply because a statement is false. The First Amendment was not intended to protect only speech that is true. Similarly, Judge Smith wrote that the Act could set “a precedent whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie.” Under the Act, the false statement alone is sufficient for conviction—the government need not prove that the defendant gained anything of value or that anyone was harmed. This represents, as we argued in our Strandlof brief, “content-based regulation of speech” and thus is “subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.”
In one of the highlights of the U.S. vs. Alvarez opinion, Judge Smith imagined the potential ramifications of outlawing simple falsehoods: “Indeed, if the Act is constitutional…then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway.” Granted, the ACLU of Colorado does not condone lying about military service nor to one’s mother, but the fact remains that the First Amendment protects all forms of speech—even speech that is not approved by your mother.
The criminalization of pure speech posing no threat to the health or safety of others pushes our civil rights and civil liberties down quite a slippery slope. Which category of false statements could next be criminalized? We appreciate that the Ninth District Court has joined Judge Blackburn in finding the Act’s warrantless restrictions on free speech as unconstitutional. U.S. vs. Strandlof will likely by appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court, so we can expect more updates on this case in the coming months.
Read the U.S. vs. Alvarez decision.
And while we didn’t agree with the substance of Judge Bybee’s dissent, we did enjoy his references to the Forrest Gump and Karate Kid movies.