Thursday, June 28, 2012

Supreme Court: You can lie about wartime heroics

It is not going to receive much attention, being handed out on the same day as the health care decision, but the U. S. Supreme Court ruled today, by a 6-3 margin, that a law preventing people from claiming they have received medals for wartime heroics, with an enhanced penalty for claiming the Congressional Medal of Honor, is unconstitutional.

The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was signed onto by Chief Justice Roberts, and justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, along with Justice Kagan.

Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas dissented.

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy cited the chilling effect such a law would have on the First Amendment, including the following passage:

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. See G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) (Centennial ed. 2003).  Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out.  Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment. See, e.g., Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy, 425 U. S., at 771 (noting that fraudulent speech generally falls outside the protections of the First Amendment).  But the 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. 

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