Medal of Honor
The Supreme Court will decide if lying about getting the Medal of Honor will be a crime. Image: Flickr / navalhistory / CC-BY

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced it would be hearing a challenge to the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to lie about receiving military honors or about military service. The contention is that law may violate First Amendment free speech protections.

The Stolen Valor Act

The Stolen Valor Act was first introduced in 2005 and signed into law in 2006. The law makes it a federal offense to “falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal.” Generally, the law was intended to prevent people from lying about military service. There are more than 200 times as many individuals claiming to have received the Medal of Honor than there are Medal of Honor recipients.

Constitutional questions

While the Stolen Valor Act has wide governmental support, there are constitutional questions. Several courts have ruled the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional because it targets a type of speech only because it is untrue. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear this question and issue a final ruling on the constitutionality of the law in the case United States v. Alvarez. Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Water Board in south Pomona, Calif., lied about having served in the Marines and later pleaded guilty under the Stolen Valor Act.

Fraud versus a lie

The main constitutional question at issue in United States v. Alvarez is the difference between a lie and fraud. Fraud, legally, is an action that defrauds another individual, causing a defined and definable harm of some kind. A lie, on the other hand, is usually only a crime if it is told under oath or on a document where one has signed an affidavit that the information contained within is truthful. In short, a lie is only a crime if it is told when the truth is legally required or expected.

The constitutionality of a lie

Lies that do not fall under perjury or fraud statues have, in the past, been protected by the First Amendment. Free speech generally covers all speech that is not lewd, obscene, profane, libelous or an imminent danger to others. The Stolen Valor Act covers a type of speech that does not fall under any of these provisions. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide if lying about military service is, in fact, constitutionally protected or not.


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