Lee Davis: When Is A Lie A Federal Crime?

Sunday, November 25, 2012 - by Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Earlier this year the Supreme Court decided US v. Alvarez, a case that tests the limits upon which a community must accept contemptible conduct--in this case speech--from locally elected officials.

Xavier Alvarez is a brazen liar. But is he a criminal? As an elected official for the Three Valley Water District Board with headquarters in Claremont, California, he introduced himself at a meeting. Alvarez claimed he served 25 years in the Marine Corps and that he was wounded in combat--this is false. He boasted that he played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once had been married to a Mexican film starlet--these claims are equally untrue. But the whopper that got him indicted in federal court was the statement that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
By making that statement he violated the Stolen Valor Act by falsely claiming to have received the honor. By all accounts Alvarez was making a pathetic attempt to draw attention to himself to those assembled at the municipal meeting.

The Stolen Valor Act states that whoever falsely represents himself, 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.

Faced with the obvious, his own statements, Alvarez pled guilty in federal court but he reserved the right to appeal his conviction. The appeal eventually found its way to the Supreme Court.

The question before the court was whether the Stolen Valor Act violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment? One circuit court had already found the act constitutional and another found it to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court accepted the case to address the split authority on this issue.

In June of this year, the Supreme Court found the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy writing for the majority in a 6-3 decision stated that content based restrictions like the Stolen Valor Act are subject to strict scrutiny to see if the law violates the First Amendment. To be sure, some false statements--false statements of defamation or false statements to federal law enforcement agents are crimes. True threats that present a grave and imminent danger are also crimes. But false statements alone do not present the type of threat that warrants intrusion into the first amendment. False statements of the kind made by Alvarez create no harm--so the court found. Obnoxious behavior and reprehensible conduct, yes, but not a crime. The remedy to false statements is true statements and the Court noted that Alvarez had been roundly criticized and rebuked once his claims we found to be untrue.

In the words of Justice Kennedy: "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."

Here is the full opinion:U.S. v. Alvarez, 132 S.Ct. 2537 (U.S.,2012)

(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at lee@davis-hoss.com or at 266-0605.)


The Women’s Fund Of Greater Chattanooga Appoints Two Executives To Its Board Of Directors

The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga appointed Autumn Graves and Cynthia Nesson to its board of directors to support the organization’s ongoing effort of creating greater opportunities in health, education, and safety for the women and girls in the Chattanooga community, officials said.   Dr. Graves, a leader in the education sector, is currently the head of school ... (click for more)

TNECD Awards ThreeStar Competitive Enhancement Grants To Marion, McMinn And 9 Other Tennessee Counties

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced Friday the 11 counties that will receive ThreeStar Competitive Enhancement Grants.  The grants will be used for a variety of local programs addressing public safety, health, education and workforce development.  The eleven communities receiving ThreeStar Competitive Enhancement Grants include ... (click for more)

Signal Mountain Man Charged In Traffic Death Of Tunnel Hill Woman, 28

Authorities said a Signal Mountain man was driving when his vehicle struck and killed a woman walking along a road at Ringgold, Ga., on Thursday night. Tyler Alexander Lemley, 20, was charged with DUI. Other charges are pending. Kimberly Diane Dotson, 28, of Tunnel Hill, Ga., was walking southbound on the west edge of Sam Lewis Road when she was hit. Lemley was driving ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Woman Sues Over Treatment Of Disabled Daughter At Memphis Airport Security Checkpoint

A Chattanooga woman has filed suit, alleging that her disabled daughter was roughed up by airport police and Transportation Security Administration personnel at the Memphis Airport. Shirley Cohen said she was returning to Chattanooga after taking her 19-year-old daughter to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for treatment. The lawsuit filed in Memphis says the daughter ... (click for more)

A Disturbing Trend At Exit 11 - And Response (6)

So, am I the first to notice a trend?   How many wrecks does exit 11 need before anyone asks "whats up with that?"  I have lost count of the wrecks that continue to happen, even after last year's awful loss of life (which I believe 51 percent of the blame should fall on the THP officer on duty).  The problem with this section of interstate are sight lines ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: ‘Man’ To Leave Marines

There are some institutions in the history of America that should be above the nauseating “political correctness” that is undermining America. One of the biggest is most certainly the United States Marine Corps. But Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has apparently and most unfortunately gone soft and the word is that in the coming days about 25 words that are primary to the Corps ... (click for more)