United States v. Alvarez (2012)

567 U.S. _

Case Year: 2012

Case Ruling: 6-3, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Kennedy

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Roberts, Sotomayor


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Breyer


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Alito

Joiner(s): Scalia, Thomas

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


For Xavier Alvarez, lying was something of a habit. He lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a star from Mexico. But when he lied in saying he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he violated a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (18 U. S. C. §704).

The lie at issue occurred in 2007, when Alvarez attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board 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.” None of this was true. They were statements designed by Alvarez to gain respect (although apparently not financial benefit).

Alvarez was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about the Congressional Medal of Honor. A U.S. district court rejected his claim that the statute violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding the law an invalid restraint on free speech.



“[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 (2002). As a result, the Constitution “demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid . . . and that the Government bear the burden of showing their constitutionality.”. . .

[C]ontent-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.’” Among these categories are advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called “fighting words,” child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the government has the power to prevent, although a restriction under the last category is most difficult to sustain. These categories have a historical foundation in the Court’s free speech tradition. The vast realm of free speech and thought always protected in our tradition can still thrive, and even be furthered, by adherence to those categories and rules.

Absent from those few categories where the law allows content-based regulation of speech is any general exception to the First Amendment for false statements. This comports with the common understanding that some false statements are inevitable if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views in public and private conversation, expression the First Amendment seeks to guarantee. . . .

The Court has never endorsed the categorical rule the Government advances: that false statements receive no First Amendment protection. Our prior decisions have not confronted a measure, like the Stolen Valor Act, that targets falsity and nothing more.

Even when considering some instances of defamation and fraud, moreover, the Court has been careful to instruct that falsity alone may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment. The statement must be a knowing or reckless falsehood.

The Government thus seeks to use this principle for a new purpose. It seeks to convert a rule that limits liability even in defamation cases where the law permits recovery for tortious wrongs into a rule that expands liability in a different, far greater realm of discourse and expression. That inverts the rationale for the exception. The requirements of a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth as the condition for recovery in certain defamation cases exists to allow more speech, not less. A rule designed to tolerate certain speech ought not blossom to become a rationale for a rule restricting it. . . .

Our law and tradition show, then, there are instances in which the falsity of speech bears upon whether it is protected. Some false speech may be prohibited even if analogous true speech could not be. This opinion does not imply that any of these targeted prohibitions are somehow vulnerable. But it also rejects the notion that false speech should be in a general category that is presumptively unprotected.

Although the First Amendment stands against any “freewheeling authority to declare new categories of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment,” the Court has acknowledged that perhaps there exist “some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected . . . but have not yet been specifically identified or discussed . . . in our case law.” Before exempting a category of speech from the normal prohibition on content-based restrictions, however, the Court must be presented with “persuasive evidence that a novel restriction on content is part of a long (if heretofore unrecognized) tradition of proscription.” The Government has not demonstrated that false statements generally should constitute a new category of unprotected speech on this basis.

The probable, and adverse, effect of the Act on freedom of expression illustrates, in a fundamental way, the reasons for the Law’s distrust of content-based speech prohibitions.

The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person. It can be assumed that it would not apply to, say, a theatrical performance. Still, the sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment. Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home. The statute seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings. And it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out. . . . [T]he Stolen Valor Act is not so limited in its reach. Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. . . .

In assessing content-based restrictions on protected speech, the Court has not adopted a free-wheeling approach, but rather has applied the “most exacting scrutiny.”

Although the objectives the Government seeks to further by the statute are not without significance, the Court must, and now does, find the Act does not satisfy exacting scrutiny.

The Government is correct when it states military medals “serve the important public function of recognizing and expressing gratitude for acts of heroism and sacrifice in military service,” and also “ ‘foste[r] morale, mission accomplishment and esprit de corps’ among service members.”. . .

These interests are related to the integrity of the military honors system in general, and the Congressional Medal of Honor in particular. Although millions have served with brave resolve, the Medal, which is the highest military award for valor against an enemy force, has been given just 3,476 times. . . . The Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the Medal of Honor is beyond question.

But to recite the Government’s compelling interests is not to end the matter. The First Amendment requires that the Government’s chosen restriction on the speech at issue be “actually necessary” to achieve its interest. There must be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. The link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown. . . .

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. As one of the Government’s amici notes “there is nothing that charlatans such as Xavier Alvarez can do to stain [the Medal winners’] honor.” This general proposition is sound, even if true holders of the Medal might experience anger and frustration.

The lack of a causal link between the Government’s stated interest and the Act is not the only way in which the Act is not actually necessary to achieve the Government’s stated interest. The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie. Respondent lied at a public meeting. Even before the FBI began investigating him for his false statements “Alvarez was perceived as a phony.”

Once the lie was made public, he was ridiculed online, his actions were reported in the press, and a fellow board member called for his resignation. There is good reason to believe that a similar fate would befall other false claimants. 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. . . .

The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth. The theory of our Constitution is “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” Abrams v. United States, (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). The First Amendment itself ensures the right to respond to speech we do not like, and for good reason. Freedom of speech and thought flows not from the beneficence of the state but from the inalienable rights of the person. And suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so. Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse. These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates. . . .

[I]n order to show that public refutation is not an adequate alternative, the Government must demonstrate that unchallenged claims undermine the public’s perception of the military and the integrity of its awards system. This showing has not been made. . . .

The American people do not need the assistance of a government prosecution to express their high regard for the special place that military heroes hold in our tradition. Only a weak society needs government protection or intervention before it pursues its resolve to preserve the truth. Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.

In addition, when the Government seeks to regulate protected speech, the restriction must be the “least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” There is, however, at least one less speech-restrictive means by which the Government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system. . . . The Solicitor General responds that although Congress and the Department of Defense investigated the feasibility of establishing a database in 2008, the Government “concluded that such a database would be impracticable and insufficiently comprehensive.” Without more explanation, it is difficult to assess the Government’s claim, especially when at least one database of Congressional Medal of Honor winners already exists.

The Government may have responses to some of these criticisms, but there has been no clear showing of the necessity of the statute, the necessity required by exacting scrutiny.

The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace. Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

It is so ordered.


As the dissent points out, “there are broad areas in which any attempt by the state to penalize purportedly false speech would present a grave and unacceptable danger of suppressing truthful speech.” Laws restricting false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and the like raise such concerns, and in many contexts have called for strict scrutiny. But this case does not involve such a law. The dangers of suppressing valuable ideas are lower where, as here, the regulations concern false statements about easily verifiable facts that do not concern such subject matter. Such false factual statements are less likely than are true factual statements to make a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas. And the government often has good reasons to prohibit such false speech.

But its regulation can nonetheless threaten speech-related harms. Those circumstances lead me to apply what the Court has termed “intermediate scrutiny” here. . . .

[F]ew statutes, if any, simply prohibit without limitation the telling of a lie, even a lie about one particular matter. Instead, in virtually all these instances limitations of context, requirements of proof of injury, and the like, narrow the statute to a subset of lies where specific harm is more likely to occur. The limitations help to make certain that the statute does not allow its threat of liability or criminal punishment to roam at large, discouraging or forbidding the telling of the lie in contexts where harm is unlikely or the need for the prohibition is small.

The statute before us lacks any such limiting features. It may be construed to prohibit only knowing and intentional acts of deception about readily verifiable facts within the personal knowledge of the speaker, thus reducing the risk that valuable speech is chilled. But it still ranges very broadly. And that breadth means that it creates a significant risk of First Amendment harm. As written, it applies in family, social, or other private contexts, where lies will often cause little harm. It also applies in political contexts, where although such lies are more likely to cause harm, the risk of censorious selectivity by prosecutors is also high. . . . [T]he prohibition may be applied where it should not be applied, for example, to bar stool braggadocio or, in the political arena, subtly but selectively to speakers that the Government does not like. These considerations lead me to believe that the statute as written risks significant First Amendment harm. . . .

We must therefore ask whether it is possible substantially to achieve the Government’s objective in less burdensome ways. In my view, the answer to this question is “yes.” Some potential First Amendment threats can be alleviated by interpreting the statute to require knowledge of falsity, etc. But other First Amendment risks, primarily risks flowing from breadth of coverage, remain. As is indicated by the limitations on the scope of the many other kinds of statutes regulating false factual speech, supra, it should be possible significantly to diminish or eliminate these remaining risks by enacting a similar but more finely tailored statute. For example, not all military awards are alike. Congress might determine that some warrant greater protection than others. And a more finely tailored statute might, as other kinds of statutes prohibiting false factual statements have done, insist upon a showing that the false statement caused specific harm or at least was material, or focus its coverage on lies most likely to be harmful or on contexts where such lies are most likely to cause harm.

I recognize that in some contexts, particularly political contexts, such a narrowing will not always be easy to achieve. In the political arena a false statement is more likely to make a behavioral difference (say, by leading the listeners to vote for the speaker) but at the same time criminal prosecution is particularly dangerous (say, by radically changing a potential election result) and consequently can more easily result in censorship of speakers and their ideas. Thus, the statute may have to be significantly narrowed in its applications. Some lower courts have upheld the constitutionality of roughly comparable but narrowly tailored statutes in political contexts. . . . [I]t is likely that a more narrowly tailored statute combined with such information-disseminating devices will effectively serve Congress’ end.

The Government has provided no convincing explanation as to why a more finely tailored statute would not work. In my own view, such a statute could significantly reduce the threat of First Amendment harm while permitting the statute to achieve its important protective objective. That being so, I find the statute as presently drafted works disproportionate constitutional harm. It consequently fails intermediate scrutiny, and so violates the First Amendment.

For these reasons, I concur in the Court’s judgment.


Only the bravest of the brave are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the Court today holds that every American has a constitutional right to claim to have received this singular award. The Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which was enacted to stem an epidemic of false claims about military decorations. These lies, Congress reasonably concluded, were undermining our country’s system of military honors and inflicting real harm on actual medal recipients and their families.

Building on earlier efforts to protect the military awards system, Congress responded to this problem by crafting a narrow statute that presents no threat to the freedom of speech. The statute reaches only knowingly false statements about hard facts directly within a speaker’s personal knowledge. These lies have no value in and of themselves, and proscribing them does not chill any valuable speech.

By holding that the First Amendment nevertheless shields these lies, the Court breaks sharply from a long line of cases recognizing that the right to free speech does not protect false factual statements that inflict real harm and serve no legitimate interest. I would adhere to that principle and would thus uphold the constitutionality of this valuable law. . . .

Properly construed, this statute is limited in five significant respects. First, the Act applies to only a narrow category of false representations about objective facts that can almost always be proved or disproved with near certainty. Second, the Act concerns facts that are squarely within the speaker’s personal knowledge. Third, as the Government maintains, and both the plurality and the concurrence seemingly accept, a conviction under the Act requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the speaker actually knew that the representation was false. Fourth, the Act applies only to statements that could reasonably be interpreted as communicating actual facts; it does not reach dramatic performances, satire, parody, hyperbole, or the like. Finally, the Act is strictly viewpoint neutral. The false statements proscribed by the Act are highly unlikely to be tied to any particular political or ideological message. In the rare cases where that is not so, the Act applies equally to all false statements, whether they tend to disparage or commend the Government, the military, or the system of military honors. . . .

Surely it was reasonable for Congress to conclude that the goal of preserving the integrity of our country’s top military honors is at least as worthy as that of protecting the prestige associated with fancy watches and designer handbags.

Both the plurality and JUSTICE BREYER argue that Congress could have preserved the integrity of military honors by means other than a criminal prohibition, but Congress had ample reason to believe that alternative approaches would not be adequate. The chief alternative that is recommended is the compilation and release of a comprehensive list or database of actual medal recipients. If the public could readily access such a resource, it is argued, imposters would be quickly and easily exposed, and the proliferation of lies about military honors would come to an end.

This remedy, unfortunately, will not work. The Department of Defense has explained that the most that it can do is to create a database of recipients of certain top military honors awarded since 2001.

Because a sufficiently comprehensive database is not practicable, lies about military awards cannot be remedied by what the plurality calls “counterspeech.” Without the requisite database, many efforts to refute false claims may be thwarted, and some legitimate award recipients may be erroneously attacked. . . .

[M]uch damage is caused, both to real award recipients and to the system of military honors, by false statements that are not linked to any financial or other tangible reward. Unless even a small financial loss—say, a dollar given to a homeless man falsely claiming to be a decorated veteran—is more important in the eyes of the First Amendment than the damage caused to the very integrity of the military awards system, there is no basis for distinguishing between the Stolen Valor Act and the alternative statutes that the plurality and concurrence appear willing to sustain. . . .

Time and again, this Court has recognized that as a general matter false factual statements possess no intrinsic First Amendment value. . . .

Consistent with this recognition, many kinds of false factual statements have long been proscribed without “‘rais[ing] any Constitutional problem.’ ” Laws prohibiting fraud, perjury, and defamation, for example, were in existence when the First Amendment was adopted, and their constitutionality is now beyond question. . . .

It is true . . . that many in our society either approve or condone certain discrete categories of false statements, including false statements made to prevent harm to innocent victims and so-called “white lies.” But respondent’s false claim to have received the Medal of Honor did not fall into any of these categories. . . . Respondent’s claim, like all those covered by the Stolen Valor Act, served no valid purpose. . . .

The lies covered by the Stolen Valor Act have no intrinsic value and thus merit no First Amendment protection unless their prohibition would chill other expression that falls within the Amendment’s scope. I now turn to that question.

While we have repeatedly endorsed the principle that false statements of fact do not merit First Amendment protection for their own sake, we have recognized that it is sometimes necessary to “exten[d] a measure of strategic protection” to these statements in order to ensure sufficient “‘breathing space’” for protected speech. . . .

[P]roof requirements inevitably have the effect of bringing some false factual statements within the protection of the First Amendment, but this is justified in order to prevent the chilling of other, valuable speech.

Allowing the state to proscribe false statements in these areas also opens the door for the state to use its power for political ends. Statements about history illustrate this point. If some false statements about historical events may be banned, how certain must it be that a statement is false before the ban may be upheld? And who should make that calculation? While our cases prohibiting viewpoint discrimination would fetter the state’s power to some degree, the potential for abuse of power in these areas is simply too great.

In stark contrast to hypothetical laws prohibiting false statements about history, science, and similar matters, the Stolen Valor Act presents no risk at all that valuable speech will be suppressed. The speech punished by the Act is not only verifiably false and entirely lacking in intrinsic value, but it also fails to serve any instrumental purpose that the First Amendment might protect. Tellingly, when asked at oral argument what truthful speech the Stolen Valor Act might chill, even respondent’s counsel conceded that the answer is none.

Neither of the two opinions endorsed by Justices in the majority claims that the false statements covered by the Stolen Valor Act possess either intrinsic or instrumental value. Instead, those opinions appear to be based on the distinct concern that the Act suffers from overbreadth. But to strike down a statute on the basis that it is overbroad, it is necessary to show that the statute’s “overbreadth [is] substantial, not only in an absolute sense, but also relative to [its] plainly legitimate sweep.” The plurality and the concurrence do not even attempt to make this showing.

The plurality additionally worries that a decision sustaining the Stolen Valor Act might prompt Congress and the state legislatures to enact laws criminalizing lies about “an endless list of subjects.”. . .

[I]f the plurality’s concern is not entirely fanciful, it falls outside the purview of the First Amendment. The problem that the plurality foresees—that legislative bodies will enact unnecessary and overly intrusive criminal laws—applies regardless of whether the laws in question involve speech or nonexpressive conduct. If there is a problem with, let us say, a law making it a criminal offense to falsely claim to have been a high school valedictorian, the problem is not the suppression of speech but the misuse of the criminal law, which should be reserved for conduct that inflicts or threatens truly serious societal harm. The objection to this hypothetical law would be the same as the objection to a law making it a crime to eat potato chips during the graduation ceremony at which the high school valedictorian is recognized. The safeguard against such laws is democracy, not the First Amendment. Not every foolish law is unconstitutional. . . .

Congress was entitled to conclude that falsely claiming to have won the Medal of Honor is qualitatively different from even the most prestigious civilian awards and that the misappropriation of that honor warrants criminal sanction.

The Stolen Valor Act is a narrow law enacted to address an important problem, and it presents no threat to freedom of expression. I would sustain the constitutionality of the Act, and I therefore respectfully dissent.