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.)


Young Professionals Association Hosts Eighth Annual Awards Program

The Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga (YPAC) hosted its eighth annual YP Awards program today at the Chattanoogan.  This year’s winners in each category are: YP of the Year Tiffanie Robinson, Lamp Post Group YP-Friendly Business of the Year Monen Restaurants YP Entrepreneur of the Year Jorge Parra, Taqueria Jalisco YP Corporate ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Business Calendar For Feb. 28-March 6

March 2015   SA/28 24Hour Generator at Mad, Bad, and Dangerous 3:00 p.m. Girls Preparatory School: 205 Island Ave. 24Hour Generator is a new event designed for enterprising high school girls across the region. Hosted by The Company Lab (CO.LAB) and held as part of GPS’s inaugural  Mad, Bad, and Dangerous  event, 24Hour Generator ... (click for more)

Signal Council, Residents Concerned About Unsafe Driving En Route To Schools

The town council of Signal Mountain is dealing with a traffic problem caused by increased traffic to and from Signal Mountain Middle High School and Nolan Elementary. Mayor Dick Gee said, “This is a tough issue that we wouldn’t have to deal with if everyone would drive responsibly.” The main concern is for safety and in November the council agreed to try to fix the problem by ... (click for more)

88-Year-Old Woman In Bradley County Severely Burned After Going Back In Burning House For Pets

Two people were injured in a house fire in Bradley County on Friday.   Shortly before noon, Bradley County EMS responded to a reported house fire on Hancock Road.   Two ambulances and a shift commander responded. Initial reports were that there were two people injured. When EMS crews arrived, Bradley County firefighters were performing resuscitative ... (click for more)

We Ought To Pay Our Own Way

The government is too big. It has never been bigger - by any measure. It spends more money than any other single actor in our society. From Blue Rhinos to providing telecommunications services, our government knows no bounds. We’ve gone from a free enterprise system to a public enterprise system.  I'm not an artist. I'm not terribly tech savvy. The part of government that ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Secret Train Ride

It was during Christmas of 2003 when Bennett Levin and his wife found themselves talking and worrying about the wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Military Hospital in Bethesda, Md., and at the nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital. Their wish was that they could do something meaningful, something really grand, for the soldiers who had lost limbs, their eyesight, and far worse. As ... (click for more)