High court strikes down Stolen Valor Act

SAN DIEGO -- A San Diego assemblyman and ex-Marine said Thursday he respects theU.S. Supreme Courtruling striking down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it unlawful to falsely claim to have been awarded a military honor.

The law, passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by PresidentGeorge W. Bush, called for a possible one-year prison term. The high court ruling came in a case sparked by a Pomona man's tall tales about service as a decorated U.S. Marine.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who became an independent during his recent and ultimately unsuccessful San Diego mayoral campaign, said those who mislead or misrepresent their military service are deplorable, but he respects the court's decision.

"The Supreme Court has ruled it is not unconstitutional to lie or have a lack of character,'' Fletcher said. "I am supportive of a new, more focused law to bring justice to those who benefit from such false claims and protects the sacrifice of those who have honorably served their country.''

During his mayoral campaign, Fletcher frequently referred to his experiences as a Marine officer who came under fire when he served in Iraq.

At the root of the case are comments that Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District Board in Claremont, made at a board meeting in 2007, when he said he was a retired Marine who had been "wounded many times'' and had been awarded the Medal of Honor in 1987.

Alvarez, who had never served in the armed forces, pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act but claimed his false statements --  including what his attorneys called any "exaggerated anecdotes, barroom braggadocio, and cocktail party puffery'' -- were constitutionally protected.

He was sentenced in July 2008 to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. But an appeal filed by his attorneys was upheld by the 9th Circuit of Appeals, prompting theU.S. Justice Departmentto turn to the Supreme Court.

The Obama administration argued that military awards serve as public symbols of honor and prestige, conveying the nation's gratitude for acts of valor, and foster morale. But the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the right to lie about medals is protected by the 1st Amendment.

Bryan Wildenthal is a professor of constitutional law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.  He said Thursday's ruling was surprising.

"People may be very upset by the speech in this case and rightfully so, but the court is saying, ‘In America, the right to say what you want - even false statements - still prevails,’" said Wildenthal.

"The government points to no evidence to support its claim that the public's general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez,'' Associate JusticeAnthony M. Kennedywrote on behalf of the majority.  "... Indeed, the outrage and contempt expressed for respondent's lies can serve to reawaken and reinforce the public's respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose.''

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Samuel A. AlitoJr.wrote that "the Stolen Valor Act is a narrow law enacted to address an important problem, and it presents no threat to freedom of expression.'' Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined in the dissent.

Alvarez was convicted separately in Pomona Superior Court of insurance fraud, misappropriation of public funds and grand theft for illegally obtaining $4,000 in health insurance benefits for his ex-wife by failing to disclose that the two had been divorced for five years when he applied for and received health insurance for her.

He was sentenced in October 2009 to five years in state prison in that case. A three-justice panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected his contention that Superior Court Judge Mike Camacho had erred in imposing the prison term, and the California Supreme Court refused in December 2010 to review the case.

The Three Valleys Municipal Water District serves cities in the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley and eastern San Gabriel valleys.

Some veterans Fox 5 spoke to expressed varied opinions about the judgment.

"It's not a crime if you're just telling stories or making up stories, but if you use it for financial gain and join organizations then it should be a crime," said Korean War Veteran Carl Morris.

"It just to me seems a travesty that they would allow people to actually wear something that they hadn't earned," Navy veteran George Little said.  "For us to say that it's okay to do I think it's absolutely wrong and it shows that we don’t' really care about our service members.”


City News Service contributed to this story.