In the tsunami of media coverage of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling, another case has been all but ignored, even though it may have even greater significance.
In the case of United States v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court decided in a 6-3 ruling that the government does not have the power to punish people for making false claims regarding military service or honors. It’s a major win for free-speech advocates. According to the court, the First Amendment is broad enough to cover intentional falsehoods so long as no one is being defrauded and the claimant is not under oath before a court of law.
The implications of this decision are difficult to fully appreciate, as it merely confirms what we as Americans have always assumed to be true — namely, that we have a right to free speech that the federal government cannot abridge. However, had the ruling gone the other way, it would have set an extremely dangerous precedent that would have allowed the government to carve out a virtually limitless number of exceptions to the First Amendment.
Supporters of the now-overturned Stolen Valor Act argued that it was necessary to protect the integrity of the U.S. military and the awards issued thereby, but it is easy to imagine this line of reasoning being used as a means to suppress political speech that might “undermine the integrity of the U.S. government.”
While the court made the right decision in this case, it is extremely troubling that three of the nine Supreme Court justices dissented from what should have been a clear-cut case. The fact that their understanding of the most basic of constitutional rights is so confused further underscores the importance of appointing justices who are committed to preserving the original intent of the Constitution, regardless of which party controls the White House. Even more disturbing is the fact that the dissenters were Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas, who have traditionally represented themselves as constitutional originalists.
The Stolen Valor Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006. It was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court after the government prosecuted a California man named Xavier Alvarez for falsely claiming to have received the Medal of Honor when introducing himself at a public event in 2007. Alvarez pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act before challenging the law on constitutional grounds.
In the current era of massive government spending and seemingly endless expansions of federal authority, it’s important to relish the small victories. And while those who value individual freedom and limited government were certainly dealt a blow by the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, they can take solace in the fact that their right to free speech has been preserved, and least for the time being.
Logan Albright is a fellow at the Prosperity Caucus.