Obama signs law criminalizing false claims of military honors

[JURIST] US President Barack Obama on Monday signed into law amendments to the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 (SVA) [HR 258, PDF], which makes it a federal crime to lie about having received a military medal or honor. The amendments narrowed the law's proscriptive scope, prohibiting only persons who, "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit," fraudulently hold themselves out to be recipients of certain military honors. Those found guilty under the law will be subjected to fines, up to one year in federal prison or both. Both houses of congress approved the amendments [ABC News report] in May after clearing alterations to provisions found unconstitutional [JURIST report] by the US Supreme Court in June 2012. The law as originally enacted set forth a blanket ban on all false military representations. However, the Supreme Court invalidated the law, holding that the government cannot punish statements merely because they are knowingly false, which would effectively grant the government authority to "compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable" in violation of the First Amendment. The court found that such a governmental power would have "no clear limiting principle." The court's dissenting opinion, however, would have upheld the law as originally enacted in keeping with the tradition of barring other serious untruths, including fraud, perjury and defamation. It remains to be seen whether claimants will challenge the now-narrower version of the law.

The SVA has been litigated in federal courts since then-president George W. Bush signed the bill into law in 2006. The appeal to the Supreme Court came in the case of US v. Alvarez, in which the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declared the law unconstitutional [JURIST report] in August 2011. Although the panel conceded that Congress's intentions were "praiseworthy," it found that the law required courts to "extend inapposite case law to create an unprecedented exception to First Amendment guarantees" and was "not narrowly drawn" enough to survive First Amendment scrutiny. Alvarez was arrested after he gave a speech before the Three Valley Water District board of directors in California, to which he had recently been admitted, in which he claimed to be a retired marine and the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, in January 2012 the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that the SVA was constitutional and not a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech as applied in another case.

 

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