(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court glimpsed the far edges of the First Amendment in a recent hearing on the Stolen Valor Act and whether outright lies have any legitimate role in society.
"You think there's no value to falsity," Justice Anthony Kennedy said during the approximately hour-long hearing last week that will determine whether a California man should be punished for lying about winning the Medal of Honor.
"But I simply can't find that in our cases, and I think it's a sweeping proposition to say that there's no value to falsity," Kennedy added. "Falsity is a way in which we contrast what is false and what is true."
Xavier Alvarez, a former elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District Board in Pomona, Calif., became one of the first persons prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, which was passed in 2005 to preserve the luster of the nation's highest military honors. A federal judge ordered Alvarez to pay $5,000, serve three years of probation and do community service, but the 9th Circuit reversed the conviction in 2010, finding that a provision of the act that criminalizes lies about military honors violated free-speech principles. That reversal set up last week's debate in the high court.
Defending the law for the government, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli stressed its limited nature.
"The Stolen Valor Act regulates a very narrowly drawn and specific category of calculated factual falsehood, a verifiably false claim that an individual has won a military honor," Verrilli said. "And that's information that ... only punishes speech about yourself. So it is speech that is uniquely within the knowledge of the individual speaker."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the issue evokes age-old questions about human emotions and the legality of "offensive speech."
"What I'm trying to get to is, what harm are we protecting here," she asked. "I thought that the core of the First Amendment was to protect even against offensive speech. We have a legion of cases that said your emotional reaction to offensive speech is not enough.
"You can't really believe that a war veteran thinks less of the medal that he or she receives because someone's claiming fraudulently that they got one," Sotomayor added. "They don't think less of the medal. We're reacting to the fact that we're offended by the thought that someone's claiming an honor they didn't receive. So outside of the emotional reaction, where's the harm? And I'm not minimizing it. I, too, take offense when people make these kinds of claims, but I take offense when someone I'm dating makes a claim that's not true."
Verilli countered that the government has a real and compelling interest in preserving military honors from debasement.