Xavier Alvarez will soon have something to brag about, assuming anyone believes him. On Wednesday, he will join the small number of citizens who have appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has secured this distinction, however, not by what he achieved in his life but what he falsely claimed to have achieved.
Alvarez, you see, is a liar. Upon that much, everyone agrees. What has perplexed judges is whether his lies are protected by the First Amendment.
In the annals of deceit, Alvarez is something of a standout. After his election to a water board in California, he introduced himself at a public meeting as “a retired Marine of 25 years,” a repeatedly wounded warrior and a Medal of Honor recipient. He also told people that he was once a professional hockey player with the Detroit Red Wings and was secretly married to a Mexican starlet. A few people thought it curious that a former hockey star and war hero ended up on the Three Valleys Municipal Water District board in Claremont, Calif., so far from his starlet wife. It seemed like virtually everything he said about himself after “I am Xavier Alvarez” wasn’t true. He was found out, publicly ridiculed and hounded out of office.
Normally, that would be the end of it. However, for local prosecutors, it was not enough to expose Alvarez as a fraud — they decided to make him one of the first people prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the act makes it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” Across the country, a number of rather pathetic individuals are being prosecuted for parading around in uniforms and pretending to be heroes.
The problem with the law they may have broken is not just that it is unnecessary, but that it can be dangerous to criminalize lies. After all, with the power to punish a lie comes the power to define the truth — a risky occupation for any government.
After Alvarez was convicted, he challenged the constitutionality of the law, claiming that it violated his First Amendment rights. The federal court of appeals in San Francisco ruled in his favor in two separate opinions. Now the case will go to the Supreme Court, where the Obama administration will argue that the First Amendment does not protect lies as it does true statements.
Under this logic, Congress would be able to criminalize statements solely because they are lies, alleging some type of amorphous social harm. The government would become the truth police, determining when fibs become felonies.