By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. law making it a crime to lie about receiving a military medal goes before the Supreme Court next week, with the Obama administration defending it for protecting the reputation of war heroes and opponents arguing it violated free-speech rights.
The justices will hear arguments Wednesday on whether an appeals court was correct to strike down the "Stolen Valor Act" adopted by Congress in 2006 for infringing on constitutional free-speech rights, a case about how far the government may go to prosecute false claims about military honors.
Opponents said the law swept too broadly, suppressed speech and covered innocent bragging, satire, parody and even statements that caused no harm, like those at issue in the case by a serial liar who held local political office in California.
The Obama administration argued in a written brief filed with the Supreme Court that the law was necessary to protect the integrity of the nation's system of military honors. It said the lies take away from the honor bestowed on deserving war heroes.
Administration attorneys said the First Amendment does not include the right to make "knowingly false factual statements" about military awards and urged the law be upheld as constitutional.
The law "does not restrict expression of opinion about military policy, the meaning of military awards, the values they represent or any other topic of public concern," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote. He will argue the case.
The law targets individuals who falsely claim, verbally or in writing, that they won a military medal or decoration. Violators can face up to six months in prison, or up to one year for elite awards, including the Medal of Honor.
The case involved Xavier Alvarez, who was elected to a California water board in Pomona. He introduced himself at a board meeting in 2007 and said he was a retired Marine who won the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.
Alvarez never received the award and never served in the military. The FBI got a recording of the meeting and Alvarez became one of the first defendants prosecuted under the law.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine and perform more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital. He then challenged the law for violating his free-speech rights and a U.S. appeals court ruled in his favor.
His attorney Jonathan Libby told the Supreme Court in a written brief there was no evidence that anyone believed Alvarez or that he received any benefit from his lie.
"He has told a bunch of whoppers, his claimed receipt of the of the Medal of Honor being just one of many," said Libby, a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles who will argue the case before the high court.
"But exaggerated anecdotes, barroom braggadocio and cocktail party puffery have always been thought to be beyond the realm of government reach and to pass without fear of criminal prosecution," Libby said.
Only 45 cases have been brought in the first five years the medal law has been in effect, Libby said.
The chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit which considered the case strongly agreed with Alvarez.
Judge Alex Kozinski said it would be "terrifying" and would permit censorship by "the truth police" if people could be prosecuted for "the white lies, exaggerations and deceptions" that are part of normal social interactions.
The Supreme Court in recent years has generally supported free-speech challenges to government restrictions. In 2010, it struck down a federal law that banned videos depicting animal cruelty for violating free-speech rights.
If the justices strikes down the law, legislation already has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to make such lies a crime only if there was intent to profit.
A number of veterans groups and 20 states supported the government while the American Civil Liberties Union, 23 news media organizations and a wide range of free-speech advocacy groups backed Alvarez.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Xavier Alvarez, No. 11-210.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Anthony Boadle)