California Case Raises Questions About Lying About One's Past
Should the federal government prosecute such cases?
One of the more entertaining movies of the last decade or so is Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." The film tells the more or less true story of Frank Abagnale, a man that confounded authorities for years by successfully impersonating, among other things, an airline pilot, state prosecutor and emergency room doctor, all the while creating false identification papers and
passing bogus checks worth millions of dollars.
No one could seriously dispute that people like Abagnale deserve to be punished with criminal prosecution. Abagnale was more than a braggart. His actions put airline passengers, hospital patients and law clients in jeopardy. And his counterfeit check-writing schemes cost companies a fortune.
On the other hand, Xavier Alvarez of California was someone that simply loved to spin wild tails about his past. He told friends that he played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, married a famous Mexican starlet, piloted a helicopter in Vietnam and suffered wounds rescuing American officials during the Iranian hostage crisis. It was, to put it mildly, all a bunch of baloney.
But according to federal prosecutors, Alvarez crossed a line when he falsely informed municipal officials, while interviewing for a position on a board, that he once received the Medal of Honor.
The Stolen Valor Act of 2006 apparently makes it a federal crime for someone to lie about receiving military honors.
Alvarez originally agreed to pay a fine for his misdeed, but he later brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the law, saying that his right of free speech included the right to lie about his past. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, by a vote of 2-1, agreed with Alvarez, and the federal government appealed.
A few weeks back, the United States Supreme Court heard argument in the case.
The government's position is that the law respects and pays honor to those men and women that served in the military and did, in fact, earn such honors.
At oral argument, however, several of the justices seemed concerned argument about giving the government license to pass laws outlawing lies. One justice wondered whether the government could pass a law prohibiting someone from lying about his or her educational background, while another questioned whether Congress could prevent someone from denying that the Holocaust
Should the government be in the business of prosecuting people for lying, even about things we all agree no decent person should lie about?
The Supreme Court has some major cases on its docket this spring. Whether Obamacare is constitutional. Whether the Arizona immigration law can stay on the books.
While the Stolen Valor Act case has not, and will not, get the attention these historic cases have received and will continue to receive, the case is worth watching nonetheless. The Supreme Court may soon issue a ruling that could lay the groundwork for future governmental regulation of our right of free
speech. All of us should stay tuned.