The Medal of Honor is seen during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington. File photo. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether claiming a military medal you haven't earned can be punished under federal law.
A series of U.S. laws since 1948 has made it a crime to falsely claim military decorations. The latest, the Stolen Valor Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2006. A violation carries a possible year in prison plus a fine.
But a federal appeals court panel in California ruled 2-1 last year in a case involving a false claim of the Medal of Honor that such claims are protected by the First Amendment. Speech is speech, the panel majority said, even if it's a lie.
The panel majority declared the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional.
The Obama administration then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the appeals court panel, restoring the act.
In the California case, Xavier Alvarez won a seat on the Three Valley Water District Board of Directors in 2007. "I'm a retired Marine of 25 years," Alvarez told a neighborhood district board meeting. "I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I'm still around."
The only problem, the appeals court opinion says, was that "Alvarez has never been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, nor has he spent a single day as a Marine or in the service of any other branch of the United States armed forces. In short, with the exception of 'I'm still around,' his self-introduction was nothing but a series of bizarre lies."
Moreover, Alvarez's lies during that 2007 water district board meeting "were only the latest in a long string of fabrications. Apparently, Alvarez makes a hobby of lying about himself," the appeals court opinion says.
After the FBI obtained a recording of the water district board meeting, Alvarez was indicted in federal court in Los Angeles on two counts of violating the Stolen Valor Act.
Alvarez pleaded guilty -- but reserved the right to challenge the constitutionality of the act on appeal. He was sentenced to a year on probation.
A July 2009 article in The Marine Corps Times found 40 doctored profiles in that year's Marine Corps Association Directory -- 16 made false claims for the Medal of Honor, 16 for the Navy Cross and eight for the Silver Star.