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The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law making it a crime to lie about having received the Medal of Honor and other prized military awards.
The court voted 6-3 Thursday in favor of Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official in California who falsely claimed he was a retired Marine who won the Medal of Honor.
Alvarez had pleaded guilty to violating a 2006 law that was adopted with the nation at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and aimed at people making phony claims of heroism in battle. The court, in a judgment written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ordered that his conviction be thrown out.
Kennedy said the lies "were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him."
The federal government argued that the 2006 law was essential to protect the integrity or war decorations. But the court said criminalizing lies about particular topics violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
"Permitting the Government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. … It's reasonable for the government to be concerned about the integrity of medals and to impose laws that honor war heroes." But "fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought" and "the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment," the court said.
A decision to strike down the law was opposed by several of the court's most conservative judges, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The ruling was immediately criticized by many veterans' advocates.
"The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is greatly disappointed in today's Supreme Court decision that overturns the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. Despite the ruling, the VFW will continue to challenge far-fetched stories, and to publicize these false heroes to the broadest extent possible as a deterrent to others." said Richard L. Denoyer, the VFW's commander-in-chief, in a statement issued shortly after the decision.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.