What could be more frightening than violations of our constitutional rights? But is everything that appears to be a violation actually one? Join us as we explore some current constitutional issues. We hope you enjoy our Bill of Frights!
Of all the amendments to the Constitution, the First is, in many respects, the one whose meaning seems most plain. Its protection of speech appears unequivocal: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” But some people wonder and worry if this prohibition against speech regulation has been observed by Congress and other government officials.
Free speech cases have a long history of litigation and Supreme Court precedent. And while the current trend in Supreme Court decisions supports a robust view of speech rights, regulations of speech continue. Earlier this year, the city council of a small town in Arkansas attempted to ban citizens from forming organizations without city approval. The ban would have even made it illegal to have four people meet in a residence to discuss issues the council was considering. The implications for freedom of assembly as well as speech concerned many, and the ordinance was later repealed.
Another interesting case of speech regulation comes in the Stolen Valor Act. The Act gives government a role in regulating speech based on the truth-value of the statement. In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Stolen Valor Act—legislation making it illegal for an individual to lie about receiving military medals of distinction from the government. The act states: “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, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces … shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”
In July, 2008 Xavier Alvarez was fined $5,000 and sentenced to three years of probation for uttering these words at a public meeting in 2007: “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. I’m still around.” Alvarez had actually never received the congressional medal.
Alvarez’s case found its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010. The court overturned Alvarez’s sentence. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Kozinski stated that: “If false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he’s Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won’t hurt a bit.”
In October of this year, the Supreme Court announced that it will be reviewing Alvarez’s case.
So what do you think? Will federal, state, and local governments continue to attempt to regulate speech? Should the government have a role in punishing fallacious statements?