The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a federal law that imposed criminal penalties against a Pomona man who lied about his military service, saying the man's claims were protected free speech.
The high court ruled the 2006 Stolen Valor Act, which made it unlawful to falsely claim military honors, unconstitutionally violated the First Amendment.
The case concerned Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, who was an elected board member governing the Claremont-based Three Valleys Municipal Water District.
Alvarez had claimed in 2007 at his first public meeting as an elected official that he was a retired Marine who had been "wounded many times by the same guy" and had been awarded the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military decoration -- 20 years earlier.
Alvarez was investigated by the FBI and soon indicted under the Stolen Valor Act, pleading guilty with the condition that he could appeal and argue the law was unconstitutional.
Alvarez had been sentenced to more than 400 hours of community services and fined $5,000.
The law had been targeted at those making false claims about heroism in battle while the nation was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It made such claims a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.
In its 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a 2010 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that sided with Alvarez, pictured below. His conviction was set aside -- a ruling that came the same day the court upheld the Obama administration's health care law.
The high court's decision on the Stolen Valor Act, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (PDF), referred to Alvarez's claims as "contemptible," but said they were constitutionally protected.
"Lying was his habit," Kennedy opened in the decision. "For all the record shows, respondent’s statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him."
The decision, Kennedy wrote, is the Supreme Court's first to directly address a law that "targets falsity and nothing more."
Kennedy drew a clear line, saying the "sweeping" and "unprecedented" law was in conflict with First Amendement free speech protections.
"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 govern¬ment authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable," Kennedy wrote. "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."
In defending the law, the Obama administration said the statute was needed to protect the integrity of the Medal of Honor.
But Kennedy noted that the outrage that met Alvarez's lies in fact reinforced "the public's respect for the Medal, its recipients, and its high purpose."
Justices Samuel Alito, Anthonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
In a separate case, Alvarez was in 2009 sentenced by a Pomona Superior Court judge to five years in state prison for misuse of public funds, insurance fraud and grand theft.
Alvarez was discharged in March from Calipatria State Prison, a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson said Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
NOTE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Alvarez had pleaded not guilty to the charges under the Stolen Valor Act. In fact, he pleaded guilty.