United States v. Alvarez

132 S. Ct. 2537 (2012)


In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Stolen Valor Act because the law violated the First Amendment. It made it a crime for any person to falsely represent that he or she had been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces.

Media Coalition filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that there is no exception to the First Amendment for false speech and the Court should not create one.


Facts of the case

In 2006, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime for any person to falsely represent, verbally or in writing, that he or she had been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces. A person convicted under the Act is subject to a fine and/or up to six months of imprisonment (or one year if the medal is the Medal of Honor).

In 2007, Xavier Alvarez attended his first public meeting as a board member of a local water district board in California and told attendees that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was indicted under the Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California rejected his claim that the statute violated the First Amendment. Alvarez pleaded guilty to one count, reserving the right to appeal on his First Amendment claim.

On August 17, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found the Act invalid [12] under the First Amendment and reversed his conviction. The government submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari [8] in the Supreme Court, and the Court granted certiorari in 2011.

Media Coalition files amicus brief

On January 19, 2012, Media Coalition submitted an amicus brief [4] in the Supreme Court, in support of Alvarez. The amicus brief expressed concern about the government’s arguments that false speech is presumptively unprotected under the First Amendment and that the Act leaves “breathing room” for protected speech, such as speech that criticize military awards or the importance of the military. The brief argued that allowing criminal penalty for false speech that is not defamatory ushers in the risk of prosecution for content providers and creates a chilling effect on protected speech.

The amicus brief was signed by: American Booksellers Foundation for Free ExpressionAssociation of American Publishers, Inc.; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Entertainment Merchants AssociationFreedom to Read Foundation; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; PEN American Center; Village Voice Media Holdings; and Writers Guild of America, West.

Other amicus briefs filed in the case

In support of respondent, Xavier Alvarez: American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Southern California; First Amendment Coalition; First Amendment Lawyers Association; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Professor Jonathan D. Varat; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 news media organizations; and Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

In support of neither party: Intellectual Property Amicus Brief Clinic of the University of New Hampshire School of Law

In support of petitioner: American Legion; Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation; Legion of Valor of the United States and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation; Professors Eugene Volokh and James Weinstein; States of Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia; and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans of the United States; Military Order of the World Wars, Vietnam Veterans of Americans, Military Officers Association of America, Non-Commissioned Officers Association, National Association for Uniformed Services, Association of the United States Army, Association of the United States Navy, Air Force Association, Marine Corps League, Air Force Women Officers Associated, Reserve Officers Association, Army Reserve Association, Fleet Reserve Association, National Guard Association of the United States, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross Society, Special Forces Association, U.S. Army Ranger Association, Flag and General Officers’ Network, West Point Association of Graduates and Association of Graduates, U.S. Air Force Academy.

Supreme Court holds law unconstitutional

On February 22, 2012, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case.

On June 28, 2012, the Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the Act violates the First Amendment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion of the court [1], joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in judgment [2], in which Justice Elena Kagan joined. Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion [3], joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Kennedy wrote: “The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth. . . . The First Amendment itself ensures the right to respond to speech we do not like, and for good reason. . . . And suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so. Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse. These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates.”

Last updated: Oct 5, 2015