The First Amendment Protects Speech the Government Decides is False

Sign reading "Danger Slippery Slope"

The “slippery slope” argument is often dismissed with disdain, but seemingly always by the people willing to turn a blind eye to reality.

When arguing an appeal, I often use an extreme example of what could occur should the court fail to find in my client’s favor. A justice will sometimes seek to counter my example by stating that such an extreme result is unlikely, but that beautifully makes my argument. “Unlikely” is not the same as impossible, and if the best that can be argued is that the result is unlikely, that means it is possible, and the policy must be considered in that light.

This is especially true as regards the First Amendment. For every policy reason one might offer to justify a limitation on the freedom of speech, I can counter with an example of how that limitation will be abused. The facts of United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709, illustrate this point.

The case involved a man by the name of Xavier Alvarez (“respondent”). As set forth in the opinion of the court, Alvarez had a propensity to spin tall tales. “He lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico. But when he lied in announcing he held the Congressional Medal of Honor, respondent ventured onto new ground; for that lie violates a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. 18 U. S. C. §704.”

The facts and arrest.

In 2007, respondent attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board. He introduced himself as follows: “I’m a retired marine of 25 years. 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.” None of this was true. As the Court put it: “For all the record shows, respondent’s statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him. The statements do not seem to have been made to secure employment or financial benefits or admission to privileges reserved for those who had earned the Medal.”

Respondent was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act for lying about the Congressional Medal of Honor at the meeting. The United States District Court for the Central District of California rejected his claim that the statute is invalid under the First Amendment. Respondent pleaded guilty to one count, reserving the right to appeal on his First Amendment claim.

In turn, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found the Act invalid under the First Amendment and reversed the conviction. After certiorari was granted by the Supreme Court, in an unrelated case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, found the Act constitutional. So there was now a conflict in the Courts of Appeals on the question of the Act’s validity.

A little history.

Congress, over a century ago, established an award so the Nation could hold in its highest respect and esteem those who, in the course of carrying out the “supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation,” have acted with extraordinary honor. And it should be uncontested that this is a legitimate Government objective, indeed a most valued national aspiration and purpose. This does not end the inquiry, however. Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought.

The issue presented by this conflict was therefore relatively straightforward. In the interest of a legitimate government objective, can the First Amendment’s protections be curtailed?

The Government argued that the criminal prohibition is a proper means to further its purpose in creating and awarding the Medal. When content-based speech regulation is in question, however, exacting scrutiny is required. Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment.

Here is how the Court resolved these competing interests.


Respondent’s claim to hold the Congressional Medal of Honor was false. There is no room to argue about interpretation or shades of meaning. On this premise, respondent violated §704(b); and, because the lie concerned the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was subject to an enhanced penalty under subsection (c). Those statutory provisions are as follows:

“(b) False Claims About Receipt of Military Decorations or Medals.––Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States . . . shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

“(c) Enhanced Penalty for Offenses Involving Congressional Medal of Honor.––

“(1) In General.––If a decoration or medal involved in an offense under subsection (a) or (b) is a Congressional Medal of Honor, in lieu of the punishment provided in that subsection, the offender shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both.”

Respondent challenges the statute as a content-based suppression of pure speech, speech not falling within any of the few categories of expression where content-based regulation is permissible. The Government defends the statute as necessary to preserve the integrity and purpose of the Medal, an integrity and purpose it contends are compromised and frustrated by the false statements the statute prohibits. It argues that false statements “have no First Amendment value in themselves,” and thus “are protected only to the extent needed to avoid chilling fully protected speech.” Although the statute covers respondent’s speech, the Government argues that it leaves breathing room for protected speech, for example speech which might criticize the idea of the Medal or the importance of the military. The Government’s arguments cannot suffice to save the statute.


“[A]s a general matter, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564, 573 (2002). As a result, the Constitution “demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid . . . and that the Government bear the burden of showing their constitutionality.”

In light of the substantial and expansive threats to free expression posed by content-based restrictions, this Court has rejected as “startling and dangerous” a “free-floating test for First Amendment coverage . . . [based on] an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits.” United States v. Stevens. Instead, content-based restrictions on speech have been permitted, as a general matter, only when confined to the few “historic and traditional categories [of expression] long familiar to the bar.” Among these categories are advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action; obscenity; defamation; so-called “fighting words”; fraud; and true threats. These categories have a historical foundation in the Court’s free speech tradition. The vast realm of free speech and thought always protected in our tradition can still thrive, and even be furthered, by adherence to those categories and rules.

Absent from those few categories where the law allows content-based regulation of speech is any general exception to the First Amendment for false statements. This comports with the common understanding that some false statements are inevitable if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views in public and private conversation, expression the First Amendment seeks to guarantee.

The Government disagrees with this proposition. It cites language from some of this Court’s precedents to support its contention that false statements have no value and hence no First Amendment protection. These isolated statements in some earlier decisions do not support the Government’s submission that false statements, as a general rule, are beyond constitutional protection. That conclusion would take the quoted language far from its proper context. For instance, the Court has stated “[f]alse statements of fact are particularly valueless [because] they interfere with the truth-seeking function of the marketplace of ideas,” Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 52 (1988), and that false statements “are not protected by the First Amendment in the same manner as truthful statements,” Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U.S. 45, 60–61 (1982).

These quotations all derive from cases discussing defamation, fraud, or some other legally cognizable harm associated with a false statement, such as an invasion of privacy or the costs of vexatious litigation. In those decisions the falsity of the speech at issue was not irrelevant to our analysis, but neither was it determinative. The Court has never endorsed the categorical rule the Government advances: that false statements receive no First Amendment protection. Our prior decisions have not confronted a measure, like the Stolen Valor Act, that targets falsity and nothing more.

Even when considering some instances of defamation and fraud, moreover, the Court has been careful to instruct that falsity alone may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment. The statement must be a knowing or reckless falsehood. See Sullivan, supra, at 280 (prohibiting recovery of damages for a defamatory falsehood made about a public official unless the statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”); see also Garrison, supra, at 73 (“[E]ven when the utterance is false, the great principles of the Constitution which secure freedom of expression . . . preclude attaching adverse consequences to any except the knowing or reckless falsehood”); Illinois ex rel. Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates, Inc., 538 U.S. 600, 620 (2003) (“False statement alone does not subject a fundraiser to fraud liability”).

The Government thus seeks to use this principle for a new purpose. It seeks to convert a rule that limits liability even in defamation cases where the law permits recovery for tortious wrongs into a rule that expands liability in a different, far greater realm of discourse and expression. That inverts the rationale for the exception. The requirements of a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth as the condition for recovery in certain defamation cases exists to allow more speech, not less. A rule designed to tolerate certain speech ought not blossom to become a rationale for a rule restricting it.

The Government then gives three examples of regulations on false speech that courts generally have found permissible: first, the criminal prohibition of a false statement made to a Government official, 18 U. S. C. §1001; second, laws punishing perjury; and third, prohibitions on the false representation that one is speaking as a Government official or on behalf of the Government, see, e.g., §912; §709. These restrictions, however, do not establish a principle that all proscriptions of false statements are exempt from exacting First Amendment scrutiny.

The federal statute prohibiting false statements to Government officials punishes “whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government . . . makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation.” §1001. Section 1001’s prohibition on false statements made to Government officials, in communications concerning official matters, does not lead to the broader proposition that false statements are unprotected when made to any person, at any time, in any context.

The same point can be made about what the Court has confirmed is the “unquestioned constitutionality of perjury statutes,” both the federal statute, §1623, and its state-law equivalents. United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 41, 54 (1978). It is not simply because perjured statements are false that they lack First Amendment protection. Perjured testimony “is at war with justice” because it can cause a court to render a “judgment not resting on truth.” Unlike speech in other contexts, testimony under oath has the formality and gravity necessary to remind the witness that his or her statements will be the basis for official governmental action, action that often affects the rights and liberties of others. Sworn testimony is quite distinct from lies not spoken under oath and simply intended to puff up oneself.

Statutes that prohibit falsely representing that one is speaking on behalf of the Government, or that prohibit impersonating a Government officer, also protect the integrity of Government processes, quite apart from merely restricting false speech. Title 18 U. S. C. §912, for example, prohibits impersonating an officer or employee of the United States. Even if that statute may not require proving an “actual financial or property loss” resulting from the deception, the statute is itself confined to “maintain[ing] the general good repute and dignity of . . . government . . . service itself.” United States v. Lepowitch, 318 U.S. 702, 704 (1943).

As our law and tradition show, then, there are instances in which the falsity of speech bears upon whether it is protected. Some false speech may be prohibited even if analogous true speech could not be. This opinion does not imply that any of these targeted prohibitions are somehow vulnerable. But it also rejects the notion that false speech should be in a general category that is presumptively unprotected.

Although the First Amendment stands against any “freewheeling authority to declare new categories of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment,” Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, the Court has acknowledged that perhaps there exist “some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected . . . but have not yet been specifically identified or discussed . . . in our case law.” Before exempting a category of speech from the normal prohibition on content-based restrictions, however, the Court must be presented with “persuasive evidence that a novel restriction on content is part of a long (if heretofore unrecognized) tradition of proscription,” Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn., 564 U.S. 786. The Government has not demonstrated that false statements generally should constitute a new category of unprotected speech on this basis.

The Slippery Slope.

Having set forth the issues, the Court then offers its own slippery slope examples, to illustrate how — even when the supporting public policy seems unassailable — such a policy would allow the government to run amuck.


The probable, and adverse, effect of the Act on freedom of expression illustrates, in a fundamental way, the reasons for the Law’s distrust of content-based speech prohibitions.

The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person. It can be assumed that it would not apply to, say, a theatrical performance. See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990) (recognizing that some statements nominally purporting to contain false facts in reality “cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual.” Still, the sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment. Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home. The statute seeks to control and suppress all false statements on this one subject in almost limitless times and settings. And it does so entirely without regard to whether the lie was made for the purpose of material gain.

And here is how bad things could get.

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. See G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) (Centennial ed. 2003). Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out. Where false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, say offers of employment, it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment. See, e.g., Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy, 425 U. S., at 771 (noting that fraudulent speech generally falls outside the protections of the First Amendment). But the Stolen Valor Act is not so limited in its reach. Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.

Just three years ago, citing to the prospect of a “Ministry of Truth” and a list compiled by the government of what could and could not be said might have seemed implausible. But then came Covid. The disease became politicized, and only one line of reasoning was acceptable to some governments. Doctors were put at risk of losing their licenses if they spoke against the dictated orthodoxy.

And even without the slippery slope argument . . .

To address the naysayers who might seek to argue against the extreme examples provided, the Court brilliantly argued the point without the examples, showing that even if the Act was limited to its intended purpose (a limitation that never occurs in the real world), it is still to far reaching and hence unconstitutional.


The previous discussion suffices to show that the Act conflicts with free speech principles. But even when examined within its own narrow sphere of operation, the Act cannot survive. In assessing content-based restrictions on protected speech, the Court has not adopted a free-wheeling approach, see Stevens, 559 U.S. 460 (“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits”), but rather has applied the “most exacting scrutiny.” Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 642 (1994). Although the objectives the Government seeks to further by the statute are not without significance, the Court must, and now does, find the Act does not satisfy exacting scrutiny.

The Government is correct when it states military medals “serve the important public function of recognizing and expressing gratitude for acts of heroism and sacrifice in military service,” and also “ ‘foster morale, mission accomplishment and esprit de corps’ among service members.” General George Washington observed that an award for valor would “cherish a virtuous ambition in . . . soldiers, as well as foster and encourage every species of military merit.” Time has not diminished this idea. In periods of war and peace alike public recognition of valor and noble sacrifice by men and women in uniform reinforces the pride and national resolve that the military relies upon to fulfill its mission.

These interests are related to the integrity of the military honors system in general, and the Congressional Medal of Honor in particular. Although millions have served with brave resolve, the Medal, which is the highest military award for valor against an enemy force, has been given just 3,476 times. Established in 1861, the Medal is reserved for those who have distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The stories of those who earned the Medal inspire and fascinate, from Dakota Meyer who in 2009 drove five times into the midst of a Taliban ambush to save 36 lives; to Desmond Doss who served as an army medic on Okinawa and on June 5, 1945, rescued 75 fellow soldiers, and who, after being wounded, gave up his own place on a stretcher so others could be taken to safety; to William Carney who sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the head, chest, legs, and arm, and yet carried the flag to ensure it did not touch the ground during the Union army’s assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The rare acts of courage the Medal celebrates led President Truman to say he would “rather have that medal round my neck than . . . be president of the United States.” The Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the Medal of Honor is beyond question.

But to recite the Government’s compelling interests is not to end the matter. The First Amendment requires that the Government’s chosen restriction on the speech at issue be “actually necessary” to achieve its interest. There must be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. The link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown. Although appearing to concede that “an isolated misrepresentation by itself would not tarnish the meaning of military honors,” the Government asserts it is “common sense that false representations have the tendency to dilute the value and meaning of military awards,” It must be acknowledged that when a pretender claims the Medal to be his own, the lie might harm the Government by demeaning the high purpose of the award, diminishing the honor it confirms, and creating the appearance that the Medal is awarded more often than is true. Furthermore, the lie may offend the true holders of the Medal. From one perspective it insults their bravery and high principles when falsehood puts them in the unworthy company of a pretender.

Yet these interests do not satisfy the Government’s heavy burden when it seeks to regulate protected speech. The Government points to no evidence to support its claim that the public’s general perception of military awards is diluted by false claims such as those made by Alvarez. As one of the Government’s amici notes “there is nothing that charlatans such as Xavier Alvarez can do to stain [the Medal winners’] honor.” This general proposition is sound, even if true holders of the Medal might experience anger and frustration.

The lack of a causal link between the Government’s stated interest and the Act is not the only way in which the Act is not actually necessary to achieve the Government’s stated interest. The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie. Respondent lied at a public meeting. Even before the FBI began investigating him for his false statements “Alvarez was perceived as a phony,” 617 F. 3d, at 1211. Once the lie was made public, he was ridiculed online, his actions were reported in the press, and a fellow board member called for his resignation. There is good reason to believe that a similar fate would befall other false claimants. Indeed, the outrage and contempt expressed for respondent’s lies can serve to reawaken and reinforce the public’s respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose. The acclaim that recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor receive also casts doubt on the proposition that the public will be misled by the claims of charlatans or become cynical of those whose heroic deeds earned them the Medal by right.

The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth. See Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927)(“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”). The theory of our Constitution is “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919). The First Amendment itself ensures the right to respond to speech we do not like, and for good reason. Freedom of speech and thought flows not from the beneficence of the state but from the inalienable rights of the person. And suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so. Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse. These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates.

Expressing its concern that counterspeech is insufficient, the Government responds that because “some military records have been lost . . . some claims [are] un-verifiable.” This proves little, however; for without verifiable records, successful criminal prosecution under the Act would be more difficult in any event. So, in cases where public refutation will not serve the Government’s interest, the Act will not either. In addition, the Government claims that “many [false claims] will remain unchallenged.” The Government provides no support for the contention. And in any event, in order to show that public refutation is not an adequate alternative, the Government must demonstrate that unchallenged claims undermine the public’s perception of the military and the integrity of its awards system. This showing has not been made.

It is a fair assumption that any true holders of the Medal who had heard of Alvarez’s false claims would have been fully vindicated by the community’s expression of outrage, showing as it did the Nation’s high regard for the Medal. The same can be said for the Government’s interest. The American people do not need the assistance of a government prosecution to express their high regard for the special place that military heroes hold in our tradition. Only a weak society needs government protection or intervention before it pursues its resolve to preserve the truth. Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.

In addition, when the Government seeks to regulate protected speech, the restriction must be the “least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” Ashcroft, 542 U. S., at 666. There is, however, at least one less speech-restrictive means by which the Government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system. A Government-created database could list Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Were a database accessible through the Internet, it would be easy to verify and expose false claims. It appears some private individuals have already created databases similar to this, and at least one data-base of past winners is online and fully searchable.

The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace. Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.

The dissenters make my point.

Three justices — ALITO, SCALIA, and THOMAS — did not agree, and their reasoning is worth reviewing. They correctly recognized why even false speech is entitled to protection:

Even where there is a wide scholarly consensus concerning a particular matter, the truth is served by allowing that consensus to be challenged without fear of reprisal. Today’s accepted wisdom sometimes turns out to be mistaken. And in these contexts, “[e]ven a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate, since it brings about ‘the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’ ” Sullivan, supra, at 279, n. 19. Allowing the state to proscribe false statements in these areas also opens the door for the state to use its power for political ends. Statements about history illustrate this point. If some false statements about historical events may be banned, how certain must it be that a statement is false before the ban may be upheld? And who should make that calculation? While our cases prohibiting viewpoint discrimination would fetter the state’s power to some degree, see R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 384-390 (explaining that the First Amendment does not permit the government to engage in viewpoint discrimination under the guise of regulating unprotected speech), the potential for abuse of power in these areas is simply too great.

But even after recognizing the risk, the dissenters decided that this particular Act would somehow remain within the intended confines, and therefore passed constitutional muster. But the following paragraphs from the dissent show the falsity of that reasoning, and support my beginning thesis; that where our sacred right of free speech is involved, “unlikely” is not sufficient.

[T]he two opinions endorsed by Justices in the majority . . . appear to be based on the distinct concern that the Act suffers from overbreadth (the Act applies to “personal, whispered conversations within a home”); (the Act “applies in family, social, or other private contexts” and in “political contexts”).  The plurality additionally worries that a decision sustaining the Stolen Valor Act might prompt Congress and the state legislatures to enact laws criminalizing lies about “an endless list of subjects.” The plurality apparently fears that we will see laws making it a crime to lie about civilian awards such as college degrees or certificates of achievement in the arts and sports.

This concern is likely unfounded. With very good reason, military honors have traditionally been regarded as quite different from civilian awards. Nearly a century ago, Congress made it a crime to wear a military medal without authorization; we have no comparable tradition regarding such things as Super Bowl rings, Oscars, or Phi Beta Kappa keys. In any event, if the plurality’s concern is not entirely fanciful, it falls outside the purview of the First Amendment.

With this final statement, the dissent ignores logic in order to make a point. How is the potential of these abuses “outside the purview of the First Amendment”? The analogy offered by the majority was that today the law is limited to people who lie about receiving a medal, but tomorrow it could be about receiving an Oscar. Both laws would implicate the First Amendment, with or without any “comparable traditions regarding such things.”

At first blush, the dissent’s reasoning is not hard to justify. Whether a person won a medal (or an Oscar) should not be subject to debate, and there us no utility to the “marketplace of ideas” by someone offering the false narrative that they received a medal. (There is an immediate problem with this position, though, because the government admitted that there is no definitive list of every person who has received a Congressional Medal of Honor, so the situation really could arise where the recipient, or their estate, is at odds with the government as to whether a medal was awarded, but let’s ignore that for the moment.) However, the dissent’s reasoning begins to wither with the application of some fairly plausible hypotheticals.

Speaking of Oscars . . .

Indeed, one need not stretch their imagination much to envision the scenario proffered by the majority, with the government trying to control who can claim to be an Oscar winner. Consider the recent events involving football player Michael Oher. As you are likely aware, Oher was taken in by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, and went on to have a career in the NFL. In 2009 the touching story was made into a movie entitled The Blind Side, for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Recently, Oher turned on the Tuohys, and claimed that he was mislead about being “adopted” by them, and sued them for the proceeds he claims he should have received from the movie. Oddly – and a point I have not seen discussed anywhere – in the movie Bullock’s character specifically explains that Oher was not adopted. Did he never watch the movie? And as to the movie proceeds, as the saying goes, the Tuohys “have the receipts,” showing that Oher received his agreed share. The case is going nowhere.

So what does this have to do with free speech and the Stolen Valor statute? Probably nothing, but in the ebbs and currents of my mind, the immediate reaction to Oher’s statements shows human nature, and why you can’t set up anyone, most of all the government, as an arbiter of the truth.

Following Oher’s claims, there were vocal calls to strip Bullock of her Oscar. In the minds of some, it was so outrageous that Bullock had won an Oscar based on a movie that Oher was claiming was based on a lie, the award needed to be taken away from her. Is it impossible to imagine that some legislature might someday decide that Oscars must be awarded according to a predetermined equity formula? And once there, is it much of a stretch to imagine that it might then be decided that actors who have espoused unpopular views should be stripped of their Oscars? And would it then be illegal for said actors to claim that they had been awarded an Oscar?

We can all agree that one who lies about having received a Medal of Honor deserves to be hung by their thumbs, but we should also all agree that we should not chip away at the First Amendment to satisfy our preference on individual speech issues, especially when a less intrusive remedy is so readily at hand. Here, the system worked. Respondent’s lie was easily exposed, and he was figuratively tarred and feathered in the public square. We must always begin with the premise that freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and only permit government intrusion on our speech when no other solution is feasible.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
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