(CN) – Non-defamatory lies are protected under the right to free speech, the 9th Circuit ruled, overturning the conviction of a man who lied about having been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Xavier Alvarez was convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act for telling fellow members of the Los Angeles-based Three Valley Water District Board of Directors that he had been in the Marines for 25 years and had been awarded the Medal of Honor in 1987.
A federal judge ordered him to pay $5,000, serve three years of probation and do community service.
On appeal, a 2-1 majority for the 9th Circuit found the Stolen Valor unconstitutional, because it trampled on the right to free speech.
“There is certainly no unbridled constitutional right to lie such that any regulation of lying must be subjected to strict scrutiny,” Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote for the majority. “However, the right to speak and write whatever one chooses-including, to some degree, worthless, offensive, and demonstrable untruths-without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment.”
Alvarez made a hobby of lying, according to the ruling. There were claims that Alvarez had told people that he won the Medal of Honor for rescuing the American Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that he had been shot in the back as he returned to the embassy to save the American flag.
Dissenting Judge Jay Bybee wrote that the majority’s ruling “strikes down an act of Congress on its face despite the most important consideration to this case: no person has ever been subjected to an unconstitutional prosecution under the Stolen Valor Act and, under any reasonable interpretation of the Act, it is extremely unlikely that anyone ever will be.”