By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about receiving a military medal, ruling it violated constitutional free-speech rights.
By a 6-3 vote, in a case about how far the government may go to prosecute false claims about military honors, the high court handed a setback to the Obama administration over the "Stolen Valor Act" that Congress adopted in 2006.
"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," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's main opinion, speaking for himself and three other justices.
While statements by a California man falsely claiming he had received the congressional Medal of Honor were "contemptible," Kennedy said the right to make those statements was protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech and expression.
The ruling rejected the administration's argument that the military medal law was constitutional and that the government has a strong interest in protecting the integrity of awards to war heroes.
Opponents said the law swept too broadly, suppressed speech and covered innocent bragging, satire and even false statements that cause no harm such as those at issue in the case by a serial liar who held local political office in California.
The military medal law targeted people who falsely claimed, verbally or in writing, that they had received such an award. Violators could have faced up to six months in prison, or up to one year for elite awards, including the Medal of Honor.
The ruling was a victory for Xavier Alvarez, who was elected to a California water board in Pomona and at a 2007 board meeting had introduced himself as a retired Marine who won the country's highest military decoration.
Alvarez never received Medal of Honor and never served in the military. The FBI got a recording of the meeting and Alvarez became one of the first people 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.
UPHOLDS U.S. APPEALS COURT
Alvarez then challenged the law on free-speech grounds and a U.S. appeals court ruled in his favor.
U.S. appeals court judges who struck down the law said that if lying about a medal can be classified a crime, so can lying about one's age or finances on Facebook or falsely telling one's mother one does not smoke, drink, speed or have sex.
The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court's decision.
Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, wrote that the law was narrow and adopted to address an important problem.
"Congress was entitled to conclude that falsely claiming to have won the Medal of Honor is qualitatively different from even the most prestigious civilian awards and that the misappropriation of that honor warrants criminal sanction," he said.
Only 45 cases have been brought by federal prosecutors in the first five years the medal law has been in effect, an attorney for Alvarez has said.
A number of veterans groups and 20 states supported the government in the case, while the American Civil Liberties Union and a wide-range of free-speech advocacy groups backed Alvarez in his challenge to the law.
Legislation already has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to amend the law to make it a crime to lie about military medals only if there was intent to profit.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Xavier Alvarez, No. 11-210.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Jackie Frank; Editing by Will Dunham)