A 3-year-old federal law that makes it a crime to falsely claim to have received a medal from the U.S. military is unconstitutional, an appeals court panel in California ruled Tuesday.
The decision involves the case of Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif., a water district board member who said at a public meeting in 2007 that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.
Alvarez was indicted in 2007. He pleaded guilty on the condition that he be allowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds. He was sentenced under the Stolen Valor Act to more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital and fined $5,000.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him in a 2-1 decision Tuesday, agreeing that the law was a violation of his free-speech rights. The majority said there's no evidence that such lies harm anybody, and there's no compelling reason for the government to ban such lies.
The dissenting justice insisted that the majority refused to follow clear Supreme Court precedent that false statements of fact are not entitled to First Amendment protection.
In June, a judge in Denver ruled that the federal law making it illegal to lie about being a war hero was unconstitutional because it violates free speech.
The act revised and toughened a law that forbids anyone to wear a military medal that wasn't earned. The measure sailed through Congress in late 2006, receiving unanimous approval in the Senate.
Dozens of people have been arrested under the law at a time when veterans coming home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being embraced as heroes. Many of the cases involve men who simply got caught living a lie without profiting from it, including Ramona resident David Weber, who impersonated a Marine major general at an event at the Ramona VFW in 2009 celebrating the Marine Corp's birthday. At that ceremony, Weber, 69, was given the first piece of cake, an honor reserved for the highest ranking officer present.
"I have often said that God gave us one mouth and two ears so that we would listen more than we talk," Weber told the Ramona Sentinel, which broke the story. "I did not follow that advice."
Most of the impostors have been ordered to perform community service, but Weber was also sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles said it was deciding whether to appeal Tuesday's ruling.