United States v. Alvarez

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Xavier Alvarez
LOCATION: Walnut Valley Water District Board of Directors

DOCKET NO.: 11-210
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 567 US (2012)
GRANTED: Oct 17, 2011
ARGUED: Feb 22, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 28, 2012

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. – Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Jonathan D. Libby – for the respondent

Facts of the case

On July 23, 2007, Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Three Valleys Water District Board of Directors, attended a joint meeting with the Walnut Valley Water District Board of Directors at the Board’s headquarters. Mr. Alvarez was invited to speak about his background, and he stated, “I’m a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.” In fact, Mr. Alvarez had not received the Congressional Medal of Honor, nor any other military medal or decoration. He had also had never served in the United States Armed Forces.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals. On September 26, 2007, Mr. Alvarez was charged in the Central District of California with two counts of falsely representing that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in violation the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. Mr. Alvarez moved to dismiss on the grounds that the statute violated his first amendment right to free speech. The district court denied Alvarez’s motion to dismiss. The respondent thereafter pleaded guilty, but reserved his right to appeal.

Alvarez appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision. It reasoned that the Supreme Court had never held that the government may prohibit speech simply because it is knowingly false and that some knowingly false speech could have affirmative constitutional value. The court of appeals denied the government’s request for rehearing. Thereafter, the government appealed the court of appeals’ decision.


Does 18 U.S.C. 704(b), the Stolen Valor Act, violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for United States v. Alvarez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 22, 2012 in United States v. Alvarez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 28, 2012 in United States v. Alvarez

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the announcement today in Case 11-210, United States versus Alvarez.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is an opinion announcing the judgment of the Court in United States versus Alvarez.

Lying was his habit.

Xavier Alvarez is the respondent here.

He lied when he said 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 on to new ground, for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

Respondent was elected to the Three Valley Water District Board in California.

At a board meeting, he introduced himself by claiming that he’d been a marine for 25 years, had been wounded in combat and who won the Congressional Medal — Medal of Honor, and none of these statements were true.

The Stolen Valor Act, a federal statute, provides that whoever falsely claims to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor can be fined or imprisoned for up to one year.

Alvarez was convicted under the statute, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

It found the statute invalid under the First Amendment.

After we granted certiorari, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in an unrelated case found that the Act was constitutional so now, there’s a conflict in the circuits.

It’s 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 performing the supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of this Nation, have acted with extraordinary valor.

Fundamental constitutional principles, however, require that laws enacted to recognize the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought.

As a general matter, this Court has permitted content-based restrictions only when they are confined to one of the few historic and traditional categories of expression, defamation, obscenity and fraud are among these few categories of punishable speech.

Absent from those few categories, where the law does allow content-based restriction of the speech, is any general exception to the First Amendment for false statements.

A federal criminal statute does prohibit lying to a government official, but statutes of that sort are inapplicable here.

This Court has not endorsed the categorical rule that false statements receive no First Amendment protection.

By its plain terms, the Stolen Valor Act applies to speech made at anytime, in any place, to any person and it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.

Permitting the Government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.

That governmental power has no clear limiting principle.

All this suffices to show that how the Act conflicts with free speech principles.

But even when examined in its own narrow sphere of operation, it cannot survive.

In assessing content-based restrictions on protected speech, we’ve applied the most exacting scrutiny.

The Government has a legitimate and even compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its system of military honors, especially with regards the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the opinion recites the history of — of the Medal.

Although millions have served, the award has been given only 3476 times in our Nation’s history.

The rare acts of courage the Medal celebrates led President Truman to say he would “I rather have that medal around my neck than be President of the United States”.

The stories of those who have won the Medal inspire and fascinate, and it’s indicated just a few of those historical accounts, were recited in the opinion but that does not end the inquiry.

The restriction on speech must be necessary to achieve the Government’s interest.

There must be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and injury to be prevented.

The Government has failed to demonstrate this link.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Beyond general appeals to common sense, the Government provides no evidence suggesting that the public’s general perception of military medals is diminished by false claims like those Alvarez made.

In fact, the contrary appears true.

Counter speech has long been the First Amendment’s preferred method for responding to falsity.

In this case, the record demonstrates that even before the FBI began its investigation, respondent was perceived as an impostor.

Once his lie was exposed, he was ridiculed online and his resignation was called for publicly.

The outrage over respondent’s lie of anything served to reenforce the public’s respect for the Medal and its true recipients.

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.

Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Kagan joins.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.