Alvarez’s lawyer asked a federal judge to dismiss the charges as a violation of the First Amendment. The judge upheld the charges, ruling that the First Amendment does not protect “knowingly false statements.”
The act is narrowly written to ban only “deliberately false statements concerning a very specific subject matter,” the judge said.
Alvarez pleaded guilty, but reserved the right to appeal the First Amendment issue. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
A panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in a 2-to-1 vote and declared the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional.
The appeals court’s two-judge majority, Judges Milan Smith and Thomas Nelson, said they were concerned that the act might open the door to broader government restrictions on lying.
“We cannot adopt the government’s approach as the general rule for false factual speech without turning customary First Amendment analysis on its head,” Judge Smith wrote.
He said the government’s approach was inconsistent with maintenance of a robust and uninhibited marketplace of ideas.
“The right to speak and write whatever one chooses – including to some degree, worthless, offensive, and demonstrable untruths – without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment,” Smith wrote.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, in a comment about the case, said it raised the specter of government censorship by “the truth police.” He noted that “white lies, exaggerations, and deceptions … are an integral part of human intercourse."