False Statements.

As defamatory false statements can lead to legal liability, so can false statements in other contexts run afoul of legal prohibitions. For instance, more than 100 federal criminal statutes punish false statements in areas of concern to federal courts or agencies,1306 and the Court has often noted the limited First Amendment value of such speech.1307 The Court, however, has declined to find that all false statements fall outside of First Amendment protection. In United States v. Alvarez,1308 the Court overturned the Stolen Valor Act of 2005,1309 which imposed criminal penalties for falsely representing oneself to have been awarded a military decoration or medal. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, four Justices distinguished false statement statutes that threaten the integrity of governmental processes or that further criminal activity, and evaluated the Act under a strict scrutiny standard.1310

Noting that the Stolen Valor Act applied to false statements made “at any time, in any place, to any person,”1311 Justice Kennedy suggested that upholding this law would leave the government with the power to punish any false discourse without a clear limiting principle. Justice Breyer, in a separate opinion joined by Justice Kagan, concurred in judgment, but did so only after evaluating the prohibition under an intermediate scrutiny standard. While Justice Breyer was also concerned about the breadth of the act, his opinion went on to suggest that a similar statute, more finely tailored to situations where a specific harm is likely to occur, could withstand legal challenge.1312

Footnotes

1306
United States v. Wells, 519 U.S. 482, 505–507, and nn. 8–10 (1997) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (listing statute citations). [Back to text]
1307
See, e.g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. at 52 (1988) (“False statements of fact are particularly valueless [because] they interfere with the truth-seeking function of the marketplace of ideas.” ); Virginia State Bd. of Pharmacy Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U.S. at 771 (“Untruthful speech, commercial or otherwise, has never been protected for its own sake.”). [Back to text]
1308
567 U.S. ___, No. 11–210, slip op. (2012). [Back to text]
1309
18 U.S.C. § 704. [Back to text]
1310
Alvarez, slip op. at 8–12 (Kenndy, J.). Justice Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. [Back to text]
1311
Alvarez, slip op. at 10 (Kennedy, J). Justice Kennedy was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor.. [Back to text]
1312
Alvarez, slip op. at 8–9 (Breyer, J). [Back to text]