On June 28, 2012, the Court issued its ruling in United States v. Alvarez. A majority of the Court concluded that the Stolen Valor Act violated the First Amendment and therefore, was unconstitutional.
The Plurality Opinion
The plurality opinion, written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Sotomayor, concluded that the content-based regulations on speech could not meet the exacting requirements of the First Amendment. The First Amendment generally does not allow restriction of the message, ideas, subject matter, or content of expression. The Constitution "demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid . . . and that the Government bear the burden" of showing that the restrictions on speech are constitutional.
As a general rule, content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted only when confined to a few "historic and traditional categories of expression," such as speech likely to incite imminent lawless action, speech integral to criminal conduct, "fighting words," child pornography, fraud, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat that the government has the power to prevent.
The plurality made the following points:
- Falsity alone may not be enough to exclude speech from the protection of the First Amendment.
- The Stolen Valor Act was too broad. It applied to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person, without regard to whether the lie was motivated by the possibility of financial gain.
- If the Court upheld the Stolen Valor Act's restrictions on false speech, the Court would be endorsing government authority to compile a potentially unlimited list of false statements that could be punishable by law.
- In essence, this could give the government broad and unprecedented censorship powers.The plurality concluded that even though the government has a compelling interest in protecting the Medal of Honor, the restrictions in the Stolen Valor Act are not "actually necessary" to achieve that protection. The government failed to point to any evidence that the public's general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims, such as those made by Alvarez.
The plurality concluded that even though the government has a compelling interest in protecting the Medal of Honor, the restrictions in the Stolen Valor Act are not "actually necessary" to achieve that protection. The government failed to point to any evidence that the public's general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims, such as those made by Alvarez.
"Indeed, the outrage and contempt expressed for [Alvarez's] lies can serve to reawaken and reinforce the public's respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose."
The plurality noted that "[t]he remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. . . . The theory of the Constitution is 'that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.' The First Amendment itself ensures the right to respond to speech we do not like, and for good reason."
The plurality also made the following points:
- Freedom of speech and thought does not flow from the generosity of the state; it is an inalienable right.
- Government suppression of speech can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so.
- Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse.
- "These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates."
The Concurring Opinion
Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan concurred in the judgment. However, the concurring opinion concluded that even under a less strict standard, the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional. Because the Stolen Valor Act applies in all contexts, including family, social, or other private contexts where lies are unlikely to cause harm, the prohibitions of the Stolen Valor Act created too significant a burden on speech.
The Dissenting Opinion
Justice Alito, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas dissented. The dissent contended that false statements about military medals merit no First Amendment protection. The dissenters noted that false statements may be protected when laws restricting them might chill otherwise protected speech. However, the dissenting justices concluded that the Stolen Valor Act does not violate the Constitution because the subject matter of the lies does not relate to any protected expression.