Court says lying about Medal of Honor no crime
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
(08-17) 18:48 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal law making it a crime to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor or other military decorations violates freedom of speech, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Although a Southern California water board member convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act made "deliberate and despicable" claims that he had received the Medal of Honor, the Constitution prohibits the government from prosecuting someone for merely lying, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said in a 2-1 ruling.
"The right to speak and write whatever one chooses - including, to some degree, worthless, offensive and demonstrable untruths - without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment," Judge Milan Smith said in the majority opinion.
If lying about a medal can be classified as a crime, Smith said, so can lying about one's age, misrepresenting one's financial status on Facebook, or telling one's mother falsehoods about drinking, smoking or sex.
Dissenting Judge Jay Bybee said the Constitution does not protect knowingly false speech. He said the lies told by Xavier Alvarez "dishonor ... every service member who has been decorated in any way, and every American now serving."
Alvarez, elected in 2006 to the Three Valley Water District board in Pomona (Los Angeles County), introduced himself at a public meeting in July 2007 as a retired Marine who was awarded the Medal of Honor two decades before.
The court described him as a congenital liar who had never served in the armed forces but had repeatedly claimed to have been awarded military decorations. Alvarez also described himself falsely as a former police officer and pro hockey player, the court said.