As the country listened intently to the Supreme Court's decision on health care, another difficult ruling was nearly overlooked. The court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law making it a crime to lie about receiving military honors.
Reprehensible as it is to lie about being a military hero, such lies are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
In his decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: "Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought."
The case involved Xavier Alvarez, who was elected to a Pomona, Calif., water board. At a board meeting, he claimed that he had been a Marine and received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for bravery.
Not only was he not a Medal of Honor recipient, he had never even been in the service.
He was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 400 hours of community service. Even though he admitted he lied, he challenged the law and ultimately won.
It's a disgrace that cowards such as Alvarez can claim the same respect and honor accorded to those who have actually served their country.
But it is not a crime. Remedies are still possible, however, because the First Amendment is not absolute; limits on harmful speech may be acceptable.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan said in a separate opinion that "less restrictive ways" might be acceptable. One possibility would be to "insist upon a showing that the false statement caused a specific harm or at least was material, or focus its coverage on lies most likely to be harmful or on contexts where such lies are most likely to cause harm," Breyer said.
Short of that, public shaming of liars may help reduce the false claims. Websites such as reportstolenvalor.org and stolenvalor.com can assist people who have evidence that someone is lying about military honors.
The high court has in recent years rejected limits on speech, even ones with popular support. According to the Associated Press, the justices have struck down a federal ban on videos showing graphic violence against animals and rejected a state law intended to keep violent video games away from children. The court also turned aside the attempt by the father of a dead Marine to sue fundamentalist church members who staged a mocking protest at his son's funeral. In 1989, the court said the Constitution protects the burning of the American flag.
Justice Kennedy said Thursday: "Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment."
The court acted correctly to maintain our fundamental right of free speech.