The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether misrepresenting oneself as a decorated combat veteran can be punished as a crime. If the 1st Amendment is to be taken seriously, the answer is no — disgusting as such an impersonation may be. As a federal appeals court judge who ruled against the government said: "The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time. Given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements."
Those are hard words, we know, for recipients of military honors and their families. They have every reason to despise Xavier Alvarez, who boasted, after his election to the Three Valleys Municipal Water District based in Claremont, that he was a retired Marine who had been awarded the congressional Medal of Honor. Alvarez, who also claimed to have worked as a police officer and played for the Detroit Red Wings, was convicted under the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to falsely claim to have received a military decoration or medal.
But for the Supreme Court to uphold the punishment of false speech outside the context of financial fraud would undermine the 1st Amendment. If the Constitution allows Congress to criminalize falsely boasting about a medal, then other untruths could be made illegal — including Alvarez's other lies.