Justices Rule False Statements aren’t “Categorically Unprotected” by First Amendment

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law that makes it a federal crime to lie about receiving medals for military service is unconstitutional.

The justices decided that section (b) of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes lying about receiving medals a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison, or up to a year for lying about receiving the Medal of Honor, violated First Amendment protections against free speech.

Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said the ruling, which affirmed a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, was “right to reject” the government’s arguments that false statements are categorically unprotected by the First Amendment.

“As Justice Kennedy observes, the government’s argument simply lacked a limiting principle. Perfectly respectable people sometimes lie to protect their privacy, avoid hurt feelings, make others feel better, duck minor obligations, or protect themselves and others from prejudice,” Jaffer said. “If the court had endorsed the government’s sweeping argument, the government could regulate all of these false statements, and even criminalize them. The First Amendment reserves to individual citizens, not the government, the right to separate what is true from what is false, and to decide what ideas to introduce into private conversation and public debate. Today’s decision is an important reaffirmation of those crucial rights. We agree with all nine justices that the government has a legitimate interest in recognizing those who have acted with extraordinary honor in their service to the nation, but the government can further that interest without compromising First Amendment rights.”

The ACLU of Nevada has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in U.S. v. Pereleman challenging a different section of the Stolen Valor Act. Section (a) makes it illegal to wear a military medal without or imitations of medals without prior government permission. A three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this portion of the Stolen Valor Act, but the decision has been appealed for review by the full court. Section (b), which made it illegal to lie about receiving medals, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court Section in U.S. v. Alvarez.