WASHINGTON (AP) – Xavier Alvarez was in good company when he stood up at a public meeting and called himself a wounded war veteran who had received the top military award, the Medal of Honor.
Alvarez was lying about his medal, his wounds and his military service, but he wasn’t the first man to invent war exploits.
He was, however, one of the first people prosecuted under a 2006 federal law aimed at curbing false claims of military valor.
Concerns that the law improperly limits speech and turns people into criminals for things they say, rather than do, are at the heart of the Supreme Court’s review of his case and the Stolen Valor Act.
Veterans groups have come to the aid of the Obama administration, which calls the law a narrowly crafted effort to protect the system of military awards that was established during the Revolutionary War by Gen. George Washington. The high court will hear the case Wednesday, which is Washington’s 280th birthday.
“They’re committing fraud. They’re impersonating somebody else. They take on attributes of somebody else, attributes of a hero who served honorably,” said Pam Sterner, whose college term paper calling for the law wound up in the hands of members of Congress. “When you do that, impersonating someone else, that’s fraud, not freedom of speech.”
Civil liberties groups, writers, publishers and news media outlets, including the Associated Press, have told the justices they worry the law, and especially the administration’s defense of it, could lead to more attempts by government to regulate speech.
When he established military decorations in 1782, seven years before he was elected as the nation’s first president, Washington himself also prescribed severe military punishment for soldiers who purported to be medal winners but weren’t. Since then, many men have embellished their war records, and some have won special recognition.