Xavier Alvarez isn’t a decorated war hero, but he claimed to be, and as a result was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act. That law makes it a crime to lie about receiving a military service medal. Alvarez, a local politician in Pomona, California, told an assembly of folks in 2007 that he had received the Medal of Honor while serving in the Marines. But there’s no record that Alvarez was ever in the Marines. He pled guilty to the charges on the condition that he be allowed to raise a First Amendment defense against the SVA on appeal.
So does Alvarez have a case? Not according to Gary Solis, military law expert and adjunct prof at Georgetown Law. He told ABC News recently that lying about the Medal of Honor is "no more free speech than (falsely) yelling Fire! in a crowded theater."
But that can’t be right. Where’s the imminent panic, the clear and present danger (since we’re citing Holmes), the public stampede following Alvarez’s claim that would place lies like this beyond the reach of the First Amendment? Alvarez wasn’t making a false claim to obtain military benefits (fraud), or testifying about his military service on the stand (perjury). He told an ugly lie to impress local constituents.
I can only imagine the gut-punch that false claims like this feel like to soldiers who survive the actual carnage of war. But the whole point of the First Amendment is to let the truth play itself out in the marketplace of ideas; and that's precisely what happened here. Alvarez had a bad idea, tossed it into the marketplace, and in the process revealed himself to be a complete jackass. I'm not sure we'd get more from a federal prosecution.
- Kathleen Bergin