Criminalizing speech is a tricky business, but Congress seemed to think it had found the right balance in 2006 when it overwhelmingly enacted the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime simply to lie about having received a military medal or service badge.
But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit begs to differ. In a decision released on Tuesday, the three-judge panel, based in San Francisco, declared the law unconstitutional because it infringed on the defendant’s freedom of speech, even if it was false. That defendant, Xavier Alvarez, had claimed to be a Marine and a winner of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. He was neither.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, the appellate court said that if the law were held constitutional, many everyday lies could become criminal acts. “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 one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway,” Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., wrote for the majority. “The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time…”
“We have no doubt that society would be better off if Mr. Alvarez would stop spreading worthless, ridiculous and offensive untruths,” the ruling said. “But, 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.”
If we made all liars into criminals, we wouldn’t have a standing politician left to run for re-election.