The U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with the free speech value of lies about military medals.
Xavier Alvarez has a penchant for self-promotion, bordering on fantasy, and little use for the truth.
So he's spun all kinds of interesting stories about himself, and one put him front and center before the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
He lied at a public meeting about being a former U.S. Marine and winner of the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor.
Who knew that this kind of foolish behavior was a violation of federal law? But the Stolen Valor Act makes telling fibs about medals a crime punishable by a jail sentence, and Alvarez was found guilty.
His conviction was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the law is a violation of Alvarez's free speech rights. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing that 9th Circuit Court decision and struggling with the question of whether to sustain the law.
The right to speech is not absolute. Limitations, including those of libel and perjury, are well founded in the law.
But what of the humble lie — the trademark tool of politicians, pickup artists and wannabe military heroes?
The court wrestled with whether lies have any intrinsic value and, most peculiarly, whether someone who lies about being a medal recipient undermines the respect held for medals that recognize combat bravery.
Justice Anthony Kennedy flatly stated that "it does hurt the medal if people go around saying they have this medal when they don't."
Say what? Does anyone think less of a legitimate Medal of Honor winner because some foolish people try to impress others by falsely claiming to have been similarly recognized? That argument makes no sense.
As to whether false speech has value, it obviously does not. But much protected speech also lacks value, whatever that is. One man's speech trash is another's treasure.
The facts in Alvarez's case are quite specific, and he may lose before the high court. But the Stolen Valor Act is a foolish law that invites selective prosecution.
A proposal pending in Congress would amend the law to make such speech illegal if it's accompanied by improper intent, like "to obtain anything of value." Whether it passes or not, someday Alvarez can tell his grandkids about his experience before the nation's highest court. This time he'll be telling the truth.