United States v. Alvarez
567 U.S. ___ (2012)
[Plurality: Kennedy, Roberts (C.J.), Ginsburg, Sotomayor; Concurring: Breyer, Kagan; Dissenting: Alito, Scalia, Thomas.]
Justice Kennedy delivered the plurality opinion.
Lying was his habit. Xavier Alvarez, the respondent here, lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. 18 U. S. C. §704.
In 2007, respondent attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board. The board is a governmental entity with headquarters in Claremont, California. He introduced himself as follows: “I’m a…marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor….”
Respondent was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act…. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a decision by a divided panel, found the Act invalid under the First Amendment and reversed the conviction….
After certiorari was granted, and in an unrelated case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, also in a decision by a divided panel, found the Act constitutional. United States v. Strandlof (2012)….
This is the second case in two Terms requiring the Court to consider speech that can disparage, or attempt to steal, honor that belongs to those who fought for this Nation in battle. See Snyder v. Phelps (2011) (hateful protests directed at the funeral of a serviceman who died in Iraq). Here the statement that the speaker held the Medal was an intended, undoubted lie.
It is right and proper that Congress, over a century ago, established an award so the Nation can hold in its highest respect and esteem those who, in the course of carrying out the “supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation,” have acted with extraordinary honor…. [T]his is a…most valued national aspiration and purpose. This does not end the inquiry, however. 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 Government contends the criminal prohibition is a proper means to further its purpose in creating and awarding the Medal. When content-based speech regulation is in question, however, exacting scrutiny is required. Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment. By this measure, the statutory provisions under which respondent was convicted must be held invalid, and his conviction must be set aside.
- Respondent’s claim to hold the Congressional Medal of Honor was false…. [R]espondent violated §704(b); and, because the lie concerned the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was subject to an enhanced penalty under subsection (c). Those statutory provisions are…:
(b) FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT RECEIPT OF MILITARY DECORATIONS OR MEDALS––Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States…shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
(c) ENHANCED PENALTY FOR OFFENSES INVOLVING CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR….
Respondent challenges the statute as a content-based suppression of pure speech, speech not falling within any of the few categories of expression where content-based regulation is permissible. The Government defends the statute as necessary to preserve the integrity and purpose of the Medal….
- “[A]s a general matter, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2002). As a result, the Constitution “demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid…and that the Government bear the burden of showing their constitutionality.” Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2004).
In light of the substantial and expansive threats to free expression posed by content-based restrictions, this Court has rejected as “startling and dangerous” a “free-floating test for First Amendment coverage…[based on] an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits.” United States v. Stevens (2010). Instead, content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted, as a general matter, only when confined to the few “‘historic and traditional categories [of expression] long familiar to the bar.’” Among these categories are advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action, see Brandenburg v. Ohio, (1969); obscenity, see, e.g., Miller v. California (1973); defamation, see, e.g., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) (providing substantial protection for speech about public figures); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) (imposing some limits on liability for defaming a private figure); speech integral to criminal conduct, see, e.g., Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co. (1949); so-called “fighting words,” see Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942); child pornography, see New York v. Ferber (1982); fraud, see Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. (1976); true threats, see Watts v. United States (1969); and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the government has the power to prevent, see Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson (1931), although a restriction under the last category is most difficult to sustain, see New York Times Co. v. United States (1971). These categories have a historical foundation in the Court’s free speech tradition. The vast realm of free speech and thought always protected in our tradition can still thrive, and even be furthered, by adherence to those categories and rules.
Absent from those few categories where the law allows content-based regulation of speech is any general exception to the First Amendment for false statements. This comports with the common understanding that some false statements are inevitable if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views in public and private conversation, expression the First Amendment seeks to guarantee. See Sullivan (“Th[e] erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate”).
The Government disagrees…. It cites language from some of this Court’s precedents to support its contention that false statements have no value and hence no First Amendment protection…. For instance, the Court has stated “[f]alse statements of fact are particularly valueless [because] they interfere with the truth-seeking function of the marketplace of ideas,” Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988)…. See also, e.g., …Gertz (“[T]here is no constitutional value in false statements of fact”); Garrison v. Louisiana (1964) (“[T]he knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection”).
These quotations all derive from cases discussing defamation, fraud, or some other legally cognizable harm associated with a false statement, such as an invasion of privacy or the costs of vexatious litigation. In those decisions the falsity of the speech at issue was not irrelevant to our analysis, but neither was it determinative. The Court has never endorsed the categorical rule the Government advances: that false statements receive no First Amendment protection. Our prior decisions have not confronted a measure, like the Stolen Valor Act, that targets falsity and nothing more.
Even when considering some instances of defamation and fraud, moreover, the Court has been careful to instruct that falsity alone may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment. The statement must be a knowing or reckless falsehood. See Sullivan….
The Government thus seeks to use this principle for a new purpose. It seeks to convert a rule that limits liability even in defamation cases where the law permits recovery for tortious wrongs into a rule that expands liability in a different, far greater realm of discourse and expression. That inverts the rationale for the exception. The requirements of a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth as the condition for recovery in certain defamation cases exists to allow more speech, not less. A rule designed to tolerate certain speech ought not blossom to become a rationale for a rule restricting it.
The Government then gives three examples of regulations on false speech that courts generally have found permissible: first, the criminal prohibition of a false statement made to a Government official; second, laws punishing perjury; …third, prohibitions on the false representation that one is speaking as a Government official or on behalf of the Government. These restrictions, however, do not establish a principle that all proscriptions of false statements are exempt from exacting First Amendment scrutiny….
Section 1001’s prohibition on false statements made to Government officials, in communications concerning official matters, does not lead to the broader proposition that false statements are unprotected when made to any person, at any time, in any context.
The same point can be made about…the “unquestioned constitutionality of perjury statutes”…. It is not simply because perjured statements are false that they lack First Amendment protection. Perjured testimony “is at war with justice” because it can cause a court to render a “judgment not resting on truth”…. Sworn testimony is quite distinct from lies not spoken under oath and simply intended to puff up oneself.
Statutes that prohibit falsely representing that one is speaking on behalf of the Government, or that prohibit impersonating a Government officer, also protect the integrity of Government processes, quite apart from merely restricting false speech….
[T]here are instances in which the falsity of speech bears upon whether it is protected. Some false speech may be prohibited even if analogous true speech could not be. This opinion does not imply that any of these targeted prohibitions are somehow vulnerable. But it also rejects the notion that false speech should be in a general category that is…unprotected.
Although the First Amendment stands against any “freewheeling authority to declare new categories of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment,” Stevens, the Court has acknowledged that perhaps there exist “some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected…but have not yet been specifically identified or discussed…in our case law.” Before exempting a category of speech from the normal prohibition on content-based restrictions, however, the Court must be presented with “persuasive evidence that a novel restriction on content is part of a long (if heretofore unrecognized) tradition of proscription,” Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. (2011). The Government has not demonstrated that false statements generally should constitute a new category of unprotected speech on this basis.
III. The probable, and adverse, effect of the Act on freedom of expression illustrates, in a fundamental way, the reasons for the Law’s distrust of content-based speech prohibitions.
The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person. It can be assumed that it would not apply to, say, a theatrical performance. See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990) (recognizing that some statements nominally purporting to contain false facts in reality “cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual”). Still, the sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment. Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home. The statute seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings. And it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain. See San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm. (1987) (prohibiting a nonprofit corporation from exploiting the “commercial magnetism” of the word “Olympic”)….
That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. See G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out. Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment…. Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.
- … In assessing content-based restrictions on protected speech, the Court has not adopted a freewheeling approach, see Stevens (“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits”), but rather has applied the “most exacting scrutiny.” Although the objectives the Government seeks to further by the statute are not without significance, the Court must, and now does, find the Act does not satisfy exacting scrutiny….
But to recite the Government’s compelling interests is not to end the matter. The First Amendment requires that the Government’s chosen restriction on the speech at issue be “actually necessary” to achieve its interest. Entertainment Merchants Assn. There must be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. The link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown. Although appearing to concede that “an isolated misrepresentation by itself would not tarnish the meaning of military honors,” the Government asserts it is “common sense that false representations have the tendency to dilute the value and meaning of military awards.” It must be acknowledged that when a pretender claims the Medal to be his own, the lie might harm the Government by demeaning the high purpose of the award, diminishing the honor it confirms, and creating the appearance that the Medal is awarded more often than is true….
The Government points to no evidence to support its claim that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez. Entertainment Merchants Assn. (analyzing and rejecting the findings of research psychologists demonstrating the causal link between violent video games and harmful effects on children)….
The lack of a causal link between the Government’s stated interest and the Act is not the only way in which the Act is not actually necessary to achieve the Government’s stated interest. The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie. Respondent lied at a public meeting…. Once the lie was made public, he was ridiculed online, his actions were reported in the press, and a fellow board member called for his resignation…. Indeed, the outrage and contempt expressed for respondent’s lies can serve to reawaken and reinforce the public’s respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose….
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. See Whitney v. California (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”)…. Freedom of speech and thought flows not from the beneficence of the state but from the inalienable rights of the person. And suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so….
Only a weak society needs government protection or intervention before it pursues its resolve to preserve the truth. Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.
In addition, when the Government seeks to regulate protected speech, the restriction must be the “least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” There is, however, at least one less speech-restrictive means by which the Government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system. A Government-created database could list Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Were a database accessible through the Internet, it would be easy to verify and expose false claims….
The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace…. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
Justice Breyer, with whom Justice Kagan joins, concurring in the judgment.
… I. In determining whether a statute violates the First Amendment, this Court has often found it appropriate to examine the fit between statutory ends and means. In doing so, it has examined speech-related harms, justifications, and potential alternatives. In particular, it has taken account of the seriousness of the speech-related harm the provision will likely cause, the nature and importance of the provision’s countervailing objectives, the extent to which the provision will tend to achieve those objectives, and whether there are other, less restrictive ways of doing so. Ultimately the Court has had to determine whether the statute works speech-related harm that is out of proportion to its justifications.
Sometimes the Court has referred to this approach as “intermediate scrutiny,” sometimes as “proportionality” review, sometimes as an examination of “fit,” and sometimes it has avoided the application of any label at all.
Regardless of the label, some such approach is necessary if the First Amendment is to offer proper protection in the many instances in which a statute adversely affects constitutionally protected interests but warrants neither near-automatic condemnation (as “strict scrutiny” implies) nor near-automatic approval (as is implicit in “rational basis” review)…. [I]n this case, the Court’s term “intermediate scrutiny” describes what I think we should do.
As the dissent points out, “there are broad areas in which any attempt by the state to penalize purportedly false speech would present a grave and unacceptable danger of suppressing truthful speech.” Laws restricting false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and the like raise such concerns, and in many contexts have called for strict scrutiny. But this case does not involve such a law. The dangers of suppressing valuable ideas are lower where, as here, the regulations concern false statements about easily verifiable facts that do not concern such subject matter. Such false factual statements are less likely than are true factual statements to make a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas….
II-A. … I would read the statute favorably to the Government as criminalizing only false factual statements made with knowledge of their falsity and with the intent that they be taken as true….
I must concede, as the Government points out, that this Court has frequently said or implied that false factual statements enjoy little First Amendment protection.
But these judicial statements cannot be read to mean “no protection at all.” False factual statements can serve useful human objectives, for example: in social contexts, where they may prevent embarrassment, protect privacy, shield a person from prejudice, provide the sick with comfort, or preserve a child’s innocence; in public contexts, where they may stop a panic or otherwise preserve calm in the face of danger; and even in technical, philosophical, and scientific contexts, where (as Socrates’ methods suggest) examination of a false statement (even if made deliberately to mislead) can promote a form of thought that ultimately helps realize the truth. See, e.g., 638 F. 3d 666, 673–675 (9th Cir. 2011) (Kozinski, J., concurring in denial of rehearing en banc) (providing numerous examples); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) (“Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate, since it brings about ‘the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error’” (quoting J. Mill, On Liberty 15 (Blackwell ed. 1947))).
Moreover, as the Court has often said, the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can inhibit the speaker from making true statements, thereby “chilling” a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment’s heart….
Further, the pervasiveness of false statements, made for better or for worse motives, made thoughtlessly or deliberately, made with or without accompanying harm, provides a weapon to a government broadly empowered to prosecute falsity without more. And those who are unpopular may fear that the government will use that weapon selectively, say by prosecuting a pacifist who supports his cause by (falsely) claiming to have been a war hero, while ignoring members of other political groups who might make similar false claims.
I also must concede that many statutes and common-law doctrines make the utterance of certain kinds of false statements unlawful. Those prohibitions, however, tend to be narrower than the statute before us, in that they limit the scope of their application, sometimes by requiring proof of specific harm to identifiable victims; sometimes by specifying that the lies be made in contexts in which a tangible harm to others is especially likely to occur; and sometimes by limiting the prohibited lies to those that are particularly likely to produce harm.
Fraud statutes, for example, typically require proof of a misrepresentation that is material, upon which the victim relied, and which caused actual injury….
Perjury statutes…[s]tatutes prohibiting false claims of terrorist attacks…[s]tatutes forbidding impersonation of a public official…[and] [s]tatutes prohibiting trademark infringement present, perhaps, the closest analogy to the present statute. Trademarks identify the source of a good; and infringement causes harm by causing confusion among potential customers…. Similarly, a false claim of possession of a medal or other honor creates confusion about who is entitled to wear it, thus diluting its value to those who have earned it, to their families, and to their country. But trademark statutes are focused upon commercial and promotional activities that are likely to dilute the value of a mark. Indeed, they typically require a showing of likely confusion, a showing that tends to assure that the feared harm will in fact take place.
While this list is not exhaustive, it is sufficient to show that few statutes, if any, simply prohibit without limitation the telling of a lie, even a lie about one particular matter. Instead, in virtually all these instances limitations of context, requirements of proof of injury, and the like, narrow the statute to a subset of lies where specific harm is more likely to occur. The limitations help to make certain that the statute does not allow its threat of liability or criminal punishment to roam at large, discouraging or forbidding the telling of the lie in contexts where harm is unlikely or the need for the prohibition is small.
The statute before us lacks any such limiting features. It may be construed to prohibit only knowing and intentional acts of deception about readily verifiable facts within the personal knowledge of the speaker, thus reducing the risk that valuable speech is chilled. But it still ranges very broadly. And that breadth means that it creates a significant risk of First Amendment harm. As written, it applies in family, social, or other private contexts, where lies will often cause little harm. It also applies in political contexts, where although such lies are more likely to cause harm, the risk of censorious selectivity by prosecutors is also high. Further, given the potential haziness of individual memory along with the large number of military awards covered (ranging from medals for rifle marksmanship to the Congressional Medal of Honor), there remains a risk of chilling that is not completely eliminated by mens rea requirements; a speaker might still be worried about being prosecuted for a careless false statement, even if he does not have the intent required to render him liable. And so the prohibition may be applied where it should not be applied, for example, to bar stool braggadocio or, in the political arena, subtly but selectively to speakers that the Government does not like. These considerations lead me to believe that the statute as written risks significant First Amendment harm.
II-B. Like both the plurality and the dissent, I believe the statute nonetheless has substantial justification. It seeks to protect the interests of those who have sacrificed their health and life for their country. The statute serves this interest by seeking to preserve intact the country’s recognition of that sacrifice in the form of military honors. To permit those who have not earned those honors to claim otherwise dilutes the value of the awards. Indeed, the Nation cannot fully honor those who have sacrificed so much for their country’s honor unless those who claim to have received its military awards tell the truth. Thus, the statute risks harming protected interests but only in order to achieve a substantial countervailing objective.
II-C. We must therefore ask whether it is possible substantially to achieve the Government’s objective in less burdensome ways. In my view, the answer to this question is “yes.” Some potential First Amendment threats can be alleviated by interpreting the statute to require knowledge of falsity, etc. But other First Amendment risks, primarily risks flowing from breadth of coverage, remain. As is indicated by the limitations on the scope of the many other kinds of statutes regulating false factual speech, it should be possible significantly to diminish or eliminate these remaining risks by enacting a similar but more finely tailored statute. For example, not all military awards are alike. Congress might determine that some warrant greater protection than others. And a more finely tailored statute might, as other kinds of statutes prohibiting false factual statements have done, insist upon a showing that the false statement caused 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.
I recognize that in some contexts, particularly political contexts, such a narrowing will not always be easy to achieve. In the political arena a false statement is more likely to make a behavioral difference (say, by leading the listeners to vote for the speaker) but at the same time criminal prosecution is particularly dangerous (say, by radically changing a potential election result) and consequently can more easily result in censorship of speakers and their ideas. Thus, the statute may have to be significantly narrowed in its applications. Some lower courts have upheld the constitutionality of roughly comparable but narrowly tailored statutes in political contexts. See, e.g., United We Stand America, Inc. v. United We Stand, America New York, Inc., (2d Cir. 1997) (upholding against First Amendment challenge application of Lanham Act to a political organization); Treasurer of the Committee to Elect Gerald D. Lostracco v. Fox (Mich. App. Ct. 1986) (upholding under First Amendment statute prohibiting campaign material falsely claiming that one is an incumbent). Without expressing any view on the validity of those cases, I would also note, like the plurality, that in this area more accurate information will normally counteract the lie. And an accurate, publicly available register of military awards, easily obtainable by political opponents, may well adequately protect the integrity of an award against those who would falsely claim to have earned it. And so it is likely that a more narrowly tailored statute combined with such information-disseminating devices will effectively serve Congress’ end.
The Government has provided no convincing explanation as to why a more finely tailored statute would not work….
Justice Alito, with whom Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.
Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award. The Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which was enacted to stem an epidemic of false claims about military decorations….
By holding that the First Amendment nevertheless shields these lies, the Court breaks sharply from a long line of cases recognizing that the right to free speech does not protect false factual statements that inflict real harm and serve no legitimate interest. I would adhere to that principle and would thus uphold the constitutionality of this valuable law.
- … The Stolen Valor Act follows a long tradition of efforts to protect our country’s system of military honors. When George Washington, as the commander of the Continental Army, created the very first “honorary badges of distinction” for service in our country’s military, he established a rigorous system to ensure that these awards would be received and worn by only the truly deserving….
As Congress recognized, the lies proscribed by the Stolen Valor Act inflict substantial harm. In many instances, the harm is tangible in nature: Individuals often falsely represent themselves as award recipients in order to obtain financial or other material rewards, such as lucrative contracts and government benefits….
It is well recognized in trademark law that the proliferation of cheap imitations of luxury goods blurs the “‘signal’ given out by the purchasers of the originals.” In much the same way, the proliferation of false claims about military awards blurs the signal given out by the actual awards by making them seem more common than they really are, and this diluting effect harms the military by hampering its efforts to foster morale and esprit de corps….
Both the plurality and Justice Breyer argue that Congress could have preserved the integrity of military honors by means other than a criminal prohibition, but Congress had ample reason to believe that alternative approaches would not be adequate. The chief alternative that is recommended is the compilation and release of a comprehensive list or database of actual medal recipients. If the public could readily access such a resource, it is argued, imposters would be quickly and easily exposed, and the proliferation of lies about military honors would come to an end….
The Department of Defense has explained that the most that it can do is to create a database of recipients of certain top military honors awarded since 2001….
The plurality and the concurrence also suggest that Congress could protect the system of military honors by enacting a narrower statute. The plurality recommends a law that would apply only to lies that are intended to “secure moneys or other valuable considerations.” In a similar vein, the concurrence comments that “a more finely tailored statute might…insist upon a showing that the false statement caused specific harm.” But much damage is caused, both to real award recipients and to the system of military honors, by false statements that are not linked to any financial or other tangible reward….
II-A. Time and again, this Court has recognized that as a general matter false factual statements possess no intrinsic First Amendment value.
Consistent with this recognition, many kinds of false factual statements have long been proscribed without “‘rais[ing] any Constitutional problem.’” United States v. Stevens (2010) (quoting Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)). Laws prohibiting fraud, perjury, and defamation, for example, were in existence when the First Amendment was adopted, and their constitutionality is now beyond question.
We have also described as falling outside the First Amendment’s protective shield certain false factual statements that were neither illegal nor tortious at the time of the Amendment’s adoption. The right to freedom of speech has been held to permit recovery for the intentional infliction of emotional distress by means of a false statement, see Falwell, even though that tort did not enter our law until the late 19th century. And in Time, Inc. v. Hill (1967), the Court concluded that the free speech right allows recovery for the even more modern tort of false-light invasion of privacy.
In line with these…it has long been assumed that the First Amendment is not offended by prominent criminal statutes with no close common-law analog…. 18 U. S. C. §1001…makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” make any “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” in “any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States.” Unlike perjury, §1001 is not limited to statements made under oath or before an official government tribunal. Nor does it require any showing of “pecuniary or property loss to the government.”…
Still other statutes make it a crime to falsely represent that one is speaking on behalf of, or with the approval of, the Federal Government….
These examples amply demonstrate that false statements of fact merit no First Amendment protection in their own right. It is true, as Justice Breyer notes, that many in our society either approve or condone certain discrete categories of false statements, including false statements made to prevent harm to innocent victims and so-called “white lies.” But respondent’s false claim to have received the Medal of Honor did not fall into any of these categories. His lie did not “prevent embarrassment, protect privacy, shield a person from prejudice, provide the sick with comfort, or preserve a child’s innocence.”…
The lies covered by the Stolen Valor Act have no intrinsic value and thus merit no First Amendment protection unless their prohibition would chill other expression that falls within the Amendment’s scope….
II-B. While we have repeatedly endorsed the principle that false statements of fact do not merit First Amendment protection for their own sake, we have recognized that it is sometimes necessary to “exten[d] a measure of strategic protection” to these statements in order to ensure sufficient “‘breathing space’” for protected speech. Thus, in order to prevent the chilling of truthful speech on matters of public concern, we have held that liability for the defamation of a public official or figure requires proof that defamatory statements were made with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)…. [W]e have imposed “[e]xacting proof requirements” in other contexts as well when necessary to ensure that truthful speech is not chilled. Illinois ex rel. Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates, Inc. (2003) (complainant in a fraud action must show that the defendant made a knowingly false statement of material fact with the intent to mislead the listener and that he succeeded in doing so). All of these proof requirements inevitably have the effect of bringing some false factual statements within the protection of the First Amendment, but this is justified in order to prevent the chilling of other, valuable speech.
These examples by no means exhaust the circumstances in which false factual statements enjoy a degree of instrumental constitutional protection…. [T]here are broad areas in which any attempt by the state to penalize purportedly false speech would present a grave and unacceptable danger of suppressing truthful speech. Laws restricting false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and other matters of public concern would present such a threat….
Even where there is a wide scholarly consensus concerning a particular matter, the truth is served by allowing that consensus to be challenged without fear of reprisal. Today’s accepted wisdom sometimes turns out to be mistaken….
Allowing the state to proscribe false statements in these areas also opens the door for the state to use its power for political ends. Statements about history illustrate this point. If some false statements about historical events may be banned, how certain must it be that a statement is false before the ban may be upheld? And who should make that calculation?…
In stark contrast to hypothetical laws prohibiting false statements about history, science, and similar matters, the Stolen Valor Act presents no risk at all that valuable speech will be suppressed. The speech punished by the Act is not only verifiably false and entirely lacking in intrinsic value, but it also fails to serve any instrumental purpose that the First Amendment might protect….
II-C. Neither of the two opinions endorsed by Justices in the majority claims that the false statements covered by the Stolen Valor Act possess either intrinsic or instrumental value. Instead, those opinions appear to be based on the distinct concern that the Act suffers from overbreadth. But to strike down a statute on the basis that it is overbroad, it is necessary to show that the statute’s “overbreadth [is] substantial, not only in an absolute sense, but also relative to [its] plainly legitimate sweep”….
The plurality additionally worries that a decision sustaining the Stolen Valor Act might prompt Congress and the state legislatures to enact laws criminalizing lies…. The plurality apparently fears that we will see laws making it a crime to lie about civilian awards such as college degrees or certificates of achievement in the arts and sports….
The problem that the plurality foresees — that legislative bodies will enact unnecessary and overly intrusive criminal laws — applies regardless of whether the laws in question involve speech or nonexpressive conduct. If there is a problem with, let us say, a law making it a criminal offense to falsely claim to have been a high school valedictorian, the problem is not the suppression of speech but the misuse of the criminal law, which should be reserved for conduct that inflicts or threatens truly serious societal harm. The objection to this hypothetical law would be the same as the objection to a law making it a crime to eat potato chips during the graduation ceremony at which the high school valedictorian is recognized. The safeguard against such laws is democracy, not the First Amendment. Not every foolish law is unconstitutional….
The Stolen Valor Act is a narrow law enacted to address an important problem, and it presents no threat to freedom of expression. I would sustain the constitutionality of the Act, and I therefore respectfully dissent.
After United States v. Alvarez: Note
Before United States v. Alvarez was decided, the Department of Defense declared that an online database listing valor award recipients would be useless because federal law prohibits posting identifying information like dates of birth and social security numbers. See “Database of Veterans’ Medals Cited as Alternative to ‘Stolen Valor,’” N.Y. Times, June 28, 2012. One month after the decision, however, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the launch of a valor award database, which is intended to “raise public awareness about our nation’s heroes and help deter those who might falsely claim military honors.” Spoken Statement on DOD-VA Collaboration before the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2012. The database will eventually contain the names of all those who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star, and Service Crosses since September 11, 2001. It can be accessed at http://valor.defense.gov.