United States v. Alvarez

Decision Date28 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–210.,11–210.
Parties UNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Xavier ALVAREZ.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

567 U.S. 709
132 S.Ct. 2537
183 L.Ed.2d 574

UNITED STATES, Petitioner
v.
Xavier ALVAREZ.

No. 11–210.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Feb. 22, 2012.
Decided June 28, 2012.


Donald B. Verrilli, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Jonathan D. Libby, Los Angeles, CA, for Respondent.

Sean K. Kennedy, Federal Public Defender, Central District of California, Jonathan D. Libby, Deputy Federal Public Defender, Counsel of Record, Brianna J. Fuller, Deputy Federal Public Defender,

132 S.Ct. 2542

Office of the Federal Public Defender, Los Angeles, CA, for Respondent.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Lanny A. Breuer, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Ginger D. Anders, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Joseph F. Palmer, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Justice KENNEDY announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice GINSBURG, and Justice SOTOMAYOR join.

567 U.S. 713

Lying was his habit. Xavier Alvarez, the respondent here, lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor (Medal), respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. 18 U.S.C. § 704.

In 2007, respondent attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board.

567 U.S. 714

The board is a governmental entity with headquarters in Claremont, California. He introduced himself as follows: "'I'm a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy."' 617 F.3d 1198, 1201–1202 (C.A.9 2010). None of this was true. For all the record shows, respondent's statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the Medal.

Respondent was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about the Congressional Medal of Honor at the meeting. The United States District Court for the Central District of California rejected his claim that the statute is invalid under the First Amendment. Respondent pleaded guilty to one count, reserving the right to appeal on his First Amendment claim. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a decision by a divided panel, found the Act invalid under the First Amendment and reversed the conviction. Id., at 1218. With further opinions on the issue, and over a dissent by seven judges, rehearing en banc was denied. 638 F.3d 666 (2011). This Court granted certiorari. 565 U.S. 962, 132 S.Ct. 457, 181 L.Ed.2d 292 (2011).

After certiorari was granted, and in an unrelated case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, also in a decision by a divided panel, found the Act constitutional. United States v. Strandlof, 667 F.3d 1146 (2012). So there is now a conflict in the Courts of Appeals on the question of the Act's validity.

This is the second case in two Terms requiring the Court to consider speech that can disparage, or attempt to steal, honor that belongs to those who fought for this Nation in battle. See Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 131 S.Ct. 1207, 179 L.Ed.2d 172 (2011) (hateful protests directed at the funeral of a serviceman who died in

567 U.S. 715

Iraq). Here the statement that the speaker held the Medal was an intended, undoubted lie.

It is right and proper that Congress, over a century ago, established an award so the Nation can hold in its highest respect and esteem those who, in the

132 S.Ct. 2543

course of carrying out the "supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation," Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U.S. 366, 390, 38 S.Ct. 159, 62 L.Ed. 349 (1918), have acted with extraordinary honor. And it should be uncontested that this is a legitimate Government objective, indeed a most valued national aspiration and purpose. This does not end the inquiry, however. Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought.

The Government contends the criminal prohibition is a proper means to further its purpose in creating and awarding the Medal. When content-based speech regulation is in question, however, exacting scrutiny is required. Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment. By this measure, the statutory provisions under which respondent was convicted must be held invalid, and his conviction must be set aside.

I

Respondent's claim to hold the Congressional Medal of Honor was false. There is no room to argue about interpretation or shades of meaning. On this premise, respondent violated § 704(b) ; and, because the lie concerned the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was subject to an enhanced penalty under subsection (c). Those statutory provisions are as follows:

567 U.S. 716
"(b) FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT RECEIPT OF MILITARY DECORATIONS OR MEDALS .—Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States ... shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

"(c) ENHANCED PENALTY FOR OFFENSES INVOLVING CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR .—

"(1) IN GENERAL .—If a decoration or medal involved in an offense under subsection (a) or (b) is a Congressional Medal of Honor, in lieu of the punishment provided in that subsection, the offender shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both."

Respondent challenges the statute as a content-based suppression of pure speech, speech not falling within any of the few categories of expression where content-based regulation is permissible. The Government defends the statute as necessary to preserve the integrity and purpose of the Medal, an integrity and purpose it contends are compromised and frustrated by the false statements the statute prohibits. It argues that false statements "have no First Amendment value in themselves," and thus "are protected only to the extent needed to avoid chilling fully protected speech." Brief for United States 18, 20. Although the statute covers respondent's speech, the Government argues that it leaves breathing room for protected speech, for example speech which might criticize the idea of the Medal or the importance of the military. The Government's arguments cannot suffice to save the statute.

II

"[A]s a general matter, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content." Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564, 573, 122 S.Ct. 1700, 152 L.Ed.2d 771 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). As a result,

132 S.Ct. 2544

the Constitution "demands that content-based restrictions on

567 U.S. 717

speech be presumed invalid ... and that the Government bear the burden of showing their constitutionality." Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 542 U.S. 656, 660, 124 S.Ct. 2783, 159 L.Ed.2d 690 (2004).

In light of the substantial and expansive threats to free expression posed by content-based restrictions, this Court has rejected as "startling and dangerous" a "free-floating test for First Amendment coverage ... [based on] an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits." United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 470, 130 S.Ct. 1577, 1585, 176 L.Ed.2d 435 (2010). Instead, content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted, as a general matter, only when confined to the few " 'historic and traditional categories [of expression] long familiar to the bar.' " Id., at 468, 130 S.Ct., at 1584 (quoting Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 127, 112 S.Ct. 501, 116 L.Ed.2d 476 (1991) (KENNEDY, J., concurring in judgment)). Among these categories are advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action, see Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 89 S.Ct. 1827, 23 L.Ed.2d 430 (1969)(per curiam); obscenity, see, e.g., Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S.Ct. 2607, 37 L.Ed.2d 419 (1973) ; defamation, see, e.g., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964) (providing substantial protection for speech about public figures); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974) (imposing some limits on liability for defaming a private figure); speech integral to criminal conduct, see, e.g., Giboney v. Empire Storage &...

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