By Jerry Cornfield Herald Columnist
Truth, already endangered in our daily discourse, took a hit from the nation’s highest court last week.
Minutes before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its mega-decision on the federal health care law, justices struck a blow for the impunity of lying.
By a 6-3 margin, a plurality concluded a federal law making it a crime to lie about receiving military medals or honors violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech.
In one swing, the justices struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 which Congress wrote amid reports of an epidemic of people making false claims and trying to cash in on them.
It was habitual fibber Xavier Alvarez’s big whopper which made it to the high court.
Alvarez, as Justice Arthur Kennedy wrote in the lead opinion, is a guy who “lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico.”
He ventured onto federal turf in 2007 when he falsely claimed to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor while speaking at a water district meeting in Claremont, Calif.
Fast forward to last week when Kennedy wrote how this falsehood deserved protection by the First Amendment’s muscle.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
For Kennedy, not wrapping Alvarez’s lie in the Bill of Rights could open the door for government to enact laws restraining and controlling what we say, tapping into George Orwell’s “1984” for an example of where it could lead.
“That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth,” he wrote. “Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out.”
But Justice Samuel Alito wasn’t buying the logic at all, penning a dissent with a little snarl.
“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,” he wrote.
There may be instances when lying should be protected not punished but the lies covered under the federal law “have no value in and of themselves” and outlawing them will not have a chilling effect on speech.
Alito insisted the majority’s worry about government abusing its power to pass laws limiting speech led it down the wrong path.
“The safeguard against such laws is democracy, not the First Amendment,” he wrote. “Not every foolish law is unconstitutional.”
That’s no lie.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.