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.)



Matthew Higgins Wins CARTA's Martin-Langley Service Award; Bus Drivers Say Concerns Still Not Been Addressed

Matthew Higgins has been presented the annual Martin-Langley Service Award. It is presented to a CARTA employee who exemplifies the utmost in public service. Mr. Higgins was presented a glass trophy during the CARTA board meeting. Also during the session, Jilll Hindman said she is concerned that a number of Care-A-Van drivers are leaving for other work. Several have ... (click for more)

Senators Tell Administration To Abandon Plan To Sell Federal Transmission Lines

Senators Lamar Alexander and Maria Cantwell (D-Wa.) said the administration’s plan, announced on Thursday in a proposal to reorganize federal agencies, to sell the federal electric transmission assets of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Power Marketing Administrations will increase electric bills for ratepayers.   “TVA’s continued success and ability to provide ... (click for more)

All School Board Members But Rhonda Thurman Approve Going Ahead With Equity Study

All County School Board members except Rhonda Thurman said Thursday afternoon they are in favor of pushing ahead with an equity study sought by new Supt. Bryan Johnson. Ms. Thurman said she was "tired of bullying tactics by outside groups" such as UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0. She said the 132 people who signed a letter in support of the study include people "with deep pockets" ... (click for more)

CARTA Set To Launch One Of Nation's 1st Full-Size All-Electric Transit Buses

ARTA has taken delivery on one of the nation's first full-size all-electric transit buses. Officials said the bus may be ready for the road in about two weeks after some final touchups, including adding a radio. Only one other city - in Washington state - has this type bus on the road. Chattanooga will be the first in the country with three of the models. Two others are ... (click for more)

The Boss, Claude Ramsey

I try not to overuse the word great, but we lost a great man today, Claude Ramsey. I had the pleasure of serving under him as director of Commercial and Industrial Properties for 14 years while he was the Hamilton County Assessor of Property. He was probably the smartest person I have ever known. He was tough but patient, kind, caring and compassionate. He knew how to get ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Not A Blessed One

When I read, to no great surprise, that 132 of Chattanooga’s “leaders” had signed a letter in support of “socioeconomic integration” in Thursday’s Times Free Press, there were two things that were immediately obvious to me: Not a blessed one would have (a) written such a letter on their personal stationery, and (b) not a blessed one would have ever voted for the current president ... (click for more)