POMONA (CNS) - In a case sparked by a Pomona man's tall tales about service as a decorated U.S. Marine, the U.S Supreme Court Thursday struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it unlawful to falsely claim to have been awarded a military honor.
The law, passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, called for a possible one-year prison term.
At the root of the case are comments that Xavier Alvarez, who was an elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District Board in Claremont, made at a board meeting in 2007, when he said he was a retired Marine who had been "wounded many times'' and had been awarded the Medal of Honor in 1987.
Alvarez, who had never served in the armed forces, pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act but claimed his false statements -- including what his attorneys called any "exaggerated anecdotes, barroom braggadocio, and cocktail party puffery'' -- were constitutionally protected.
He was sentenced in July 2008 to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. But an appeal filed by his attorneys was upheld by the
9th Circuit of Appeals, prompting the U.S. Justice Department to turn to the
The Obama administration argued that military awards serve as public symbols of honor and prestige, conveying the nation's gratitude for acts of valor, and foster morale. But the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the right to lie about medals is protected by the 1st Amendment.
The government points to no evidence to support its claim that the public's general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez,'' Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote on behalf of the majority.
"... Indeed, the outrage and contempt expressed for respondent's lies can serve to reawaken and reinforce the public's respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose.''
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that "the Stolen Valor Act is a narrow law enacted to address an important problem, and it presents no threat to freedom of expression.'' Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined in the dissent.
Alvarez was convicted separately in Pomona Superior Court of insurance fraud, misappropriation of public funds and grand theft for illegally obtaining $4,000 in health insurance benefits for his ex-wife by failing to disclose that the two had been divorced for five years when he applied for and received health insurance for her.
He was sentenced in October 2009 to five years in state prison in that case. A three-justice panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected his contention that Superior Court Judge Mike Camacho had erred in imposing the prison term, and the California Supreme Court refused in December 2010 to review the case.
The Three Valleys Municipal Water District, based in Claremont, serves cities in the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley and eastern San Gabriel valleys.