By a 6-3 decision, the high court said that lying about medals and military service, while "contemptible" and worthy of public outrage and ridicule, is protected by the First Amendment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that the First Amendment "protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace."
The decision came in the case of Xavier Alvarez, a former member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District governing board in Los Angeles County.
At his first meeting, Alvarez had claimed he was a former Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor; in fact, he had never served in the military. After being charged, he resigned from the board.
Kennedy said Alvarez's lies "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."
Alvarez pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act and was sentenced to three years' probation, a $5,000 fine and community service. His attorneys appealed; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the appeal, and the Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed disappointment in Thursday's high court ruling and suggested that Congress look for another way to deter people from lying about having received medals for bravery.
"There might well be some legislative options here and that's something we'll be taking a closer look at, because our military men and women contribute and sacrifice too much for others to try taking the credit," Hunter said.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., vowed to sponsor legislation making it a crime to seek a benefit by lying about military service. "As a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, I feel strongly about protecting the honor of our servicemen and women," he said.
Michael Neil, a retired Marine brigadier general and recipient of the Navy Cross for bravery in Vietnam, said that lying about receiving a medal should be considered in the same way as impersonating a police officer, which is a crime.
"Why should we allow someone to impersonate someone whose bravery and heroism is far beyond what you could expect from the average citizen?" said Neil, an attorney in San Diego.
Neil said he recently encountered someone claiming to be a Navy Cross recipient. Neil said he quickly realized the man was lying. "I gave him two seconds to get out of the room," he said.
Citing a case involving Hustler magazine, federal attorneys argued that lies about military medals are "false statements (that) have no value and hence no First Amendment protection."
The court majority disagreed, saying that there is no proof that lying about medals degrades the value of the medal or the honor bestowed on recipients.
The law was passed by Congress in the midst of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and signed in 2006 by President George W. Bush. It called for a possible one-year prison term.
Joining Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
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