Supreme Court justices Wednesday sounded cautiously sympathetic to a federal law that punishes fake military heroes.
While not marching in lock step, the justices seemed to agree that lying about medals does damage to the military's honor. Their questions hinted that they might uphold the law used to prosecute a California man who falsely claimed to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
"It's a matter of common sense that, it seems to me, it demeans the medal," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often a swing vote on close cases.
Kennedy and his colleagues were confronting the Stolen Valor Act, which imposes prison sentences of up to six months on those who "falsely represent" that they have received a military medal. For high-ranking medals, the potential penalty increases to a year in prison.
Several justices made clear during the hourlong oral argument Wednesday that they doubted that the First Amendment protects the kind of self-serving lie propounded by Xavier Alvarez, the Southern California resident who falsely claimed to have been both a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient.
"I believe that there is no First Amendment value in falsehood," Justice Antonin Scalia declared, though he added that "this doesn't mean that every falsehood can be punished."
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. likewise pressed Alvarez's attorney on whether "you really think there's a First Amendment value in a baldfaced lie," while Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. demanded to know why a "pure lie" deserved protection.
"There can be a number of values," attorney Jonathan D. Libby responded. "There is the value of personal autonomy."
"The value of what?" Roberts responded, sounding skeptical. "What does that mean?"
Roberts noted that the Constitution already has been interpreted to permit regulation of various kinds of unworthy speech, including defamation, perjury and trademark violations.
At the same time, the give-and-take Wednesday sounded as though the justices were looking for a way to protect the military's medals without opening the door to further government intrusions on speech.
"If I'm right that there are very good First Amendment reasons sometimes for protecting false information, and if this [lie] also would cause serious harm, are there less restrictive ways of going about it?" asked Justice Stephen Breyer.