Global Freedom of Expression

United States v. Alvarez

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    June 28, 2012
  • Outcome
  • Case Number
    132 S. Ct. 2537
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In a public meeting, Xavier Alvarez falsely claimed that he been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his lie violated the Stolen Valor Act. The Court applied the Turner standard for this content-based restriction which requires “most exacting scrutiny.” In this 6-3 decision, the Court held that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment.


In addition to other lies he has told, in 2007 Xavier Alvarez announced that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This particular lie, which he made at a public meeting of the Three Valley Water District Board, violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, a federal criminal statute. After he made his statement, which did not seem to be for financial benefit, Alvarez was indicted under the Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California did not find that the statute violated the First Amendment. A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Act violated the First Amendment and reversed Alvarez’s conviction. After the Supreme Court granted certiorari, in an unrelated case United States v. Strandlof, 667 F.3d 1146 (2012), a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found the Act to be unconstitutional.

Decision Overview

Historically, the Court has allowed for content-based restrictions on speech in a few categories, including obscenity, defamation, fraud, and true threats. There is no general exemption for false statements, though the government argues that past cases show that false statements lack value, and, thus, do not warrant First Amendment protection. However, the cases that the government cites all relate to other categories that do not warrant protection, such as defamation or fraud. This ultimately demonstrates that the presence of false statements are not solely determinative of the Court’s outcome. In cases when the Court considers fraud or defamation, such as New York Times v. Sullivan, the speech needs to be made recklessly and with knowing falsehood.

The government cites three examples where the courts have allowed false-speech regulation, but these cases alone do not set a standard that allows all false-speech regulation to be free from First Amendment scrutiny. The Stolen Valor Act attempts to quell all false statements on one topic, without regard to whether the speaker is making such statements for material gain, etc. When evaluating content-based restrictions, the Court should apply the Turner standard of “‘most exacting scrutiny,’” and the Act does not survive that scrutiny. Under Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, the government must also use the least restrictive of the effective and available options, such as creating a public database on the Internet of all Medal winners.

The Court acknowledges that protecting the Medal of Honor and its integrity is within the government’s interest. However, for First Amendment scrutiny, there needs to be a link between the harm prevented and the limitations imposed, and the government has not shown that link here. The government did not address how the award’s perception was diluted by these false representations or how counter-speech against the appellant did not also achieve the government’s interest.

When laws violate the First Amendment, the Court often considers the appropriate means and ends by applying factors, and this approach is also considered “intermediate scrutiny.”  False statements are less likely than true statement to add to discussion, but the government can only criminalize those false statements made with both the intent that such statements will be presumed true and made with an awareness of their falsity. These requirements are necessary to avoid “chilling” speech at the heart of the First Amendment. Given the less burdensome methods that the government can achieve its objectives, the Court finds this Act to be unconstitutional.

In the dissent, justices note the multiple laws outlawing perjury and Congress’ previous laws regarding the use and manufacturing of military decorations without permission. In the concurrence, justices agree that the law is overly broad but that Congress could create a narrower and acceptable law.

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

This case expands freedom of expression because it requires that false-statement regulations undergo First Amendment scrutiny.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105 (1991)
  • U.S., Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)
  • U.S., Ashcroft v. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656 (2004)
  • U.S., Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)
  • U.S., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
  • U.S., Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
  • U.S., Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490 (1949)
  • U.S., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
  • U.S., New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747 (1982)
  • U.S., Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)
  • U.S., Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)
  • U.S., Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64 (1964)
  • U.S., Konigsberg v. State Bar of California, 366 U.S. 36 (1961)
  • U.S., United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460 (2010)
  • U.S., Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990)
  • U.S., Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994)
  • U.S., United States v. Playboy Entm't Grp., 529 U.S. 803 (2000)
  • U.S., Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).
  • U.S., Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)
  • U.S., 18 U.S.C. §704
  • U.S., 18 U.S.C. §1001
  • U.S., 18 U. S. C. §709
  • U.S., 18 U.S.C. §912
  • U.S., 18 U.S.C. §712
  • U.S., United States v. Strandlof, 667 F.3d 1146 (2012)
  • U.S., Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443 (2011)
  • U.S., Hustler Magazine, Inc., v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46 (1998)
  • U.S., Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U. S. 45 (1982)
  • U.S., Herbert v. Lando, 441 U. S. 153, 171 (1979)
  • U.S., Illinois ex rel. Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates, Inc., 538 U. S. 600 (2003)
  • U.S., United States v. Grayson, 438 U. S. 41 (1978)
  • U.S., In re Michael, 326 U. S. 224 (1945)
  • U.S., United States v. Lepowitch, 318 U. S. 702 (1943)
  • U.S., San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U. S. 522 (1987)
  • U.S., United States v. Dunnigan, 507 U. S. 87 (1993)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

This decision was made by the U.S. Supreme Court and is binding on all lower courts.

The decision was cited in:

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