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Court Holds Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional, dismisses First American Financial v. Edwards

In addition to its landmark ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court dealt with two other cases today—affirming the Ninth Circuit’s decision striking down the Stolen Valor Act in one, and dismissing First American Financial v. Edwards without issuing a decision, thus leaving the Ninth Circuit’s decision intact.

In United States v. Alvarez, No. 11-210, a highly anticipated First Amendment case, the Court held six to three that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The Stolen Valor Act, 18 U.S.C. § 704, makes it a federal crime to lie about having received a military decoration or medal, punishable by up to a year in prison if the offense involved the military’s highest honors. The key issue in this case is whether knowingly false statements of fact – made without any apparent intent to defraud – are a protected form of speech, and if so, what level of protection they deserve.

Justice Kennedy announced a plurality opinion – joined by the Chief Justice, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Sotomayor – and concluding that the Stolen Valor Act infringes on protected speech. The plurality reasoned that, with only narrow exceptions, content-based restrictions on speech face strict scrutiny, and are therefore almost always unconstitutional. False statements of fact do not fall within one of these exceptions, and so the Stolen Valor Act can survive strict scrutiny only if it is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. The Court concluded that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because the Government had not shown that the statute is necessary to protect the integrity of the system of military honors – the interest the Government had identified in support of the Act.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan, concurred separately, concluding that the Stolen Valor Act, as drafted, violates intermediate scrutiny. These Justices argued that intermediate scrutiny is the appropriate standard because the Government should have some ability to regulate false statements of fact. However, because the statute, as drafted, applies even in family, social, or other private contexts where lies will often cause little harm; it includes few other limits on its scope, and it creates too significant a burden on protected speech. The concurring Justices believe that the Government could achieve its goals in a less burdensome way, and so they too held the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional.  This opinion leaves open the possibility that Congress will re-write the law more narrowly. Three Justices, led by Justice Alito, dissented.

In First American Financial v. Edwards, No. 10-708, a case regarding Congress’s power to create private rights of action to enforce statutory rights, the Court dismissed the petition as improvidently granted. Thus, the Ninth Circuit’s decision holding that the plaintiff has standing remains intact. The Court did not provide an explanation for why the case was dismissed, and so we are left to speculate that the Justices could not reach agreement on the proper result.

Recommended Citation: Tejinder Singh, Court Holds Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional, dismisses First American Financial v. Edwards, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 28, 2012, 10:55 AM),