Ccontent-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. Such as intent and likelihood to incite imminent lawless action, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called "fighting words," child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the Government has the power to prevent. These categories have a historical foundation in the Court's free speech tradition.
When respondent Xavier Alvarez attended his first meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board, he announced that he was a retired marine of 25 years and that he has been awarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Alvarez’s announcements turned out to be concocted lies. Thereafter, the U.S. government obtained an indictment that charged respondent with violating the Stolen Valor Act. The aforementioned statute made it a crime to falsely claim receipt of military decorations or medals. It further provided an enhanced penalty if the Congressional Medal of Honor was involved. During trial, respondent pleaded guilty to a charge of falsely claiming that he had received the Medal of Honor, but reserved his right to appeal his claim that the Act is unconstitutional. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that the Act violated the First Amendment and reversed respondent's conviction. The petitioner United States sought review of the reversal.
Did the lower court err in finding that the Stolen Valor Act violate the First Amendment?
The Court held that although content-based restrictions on speech had been permitted for incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called “fighting words,” child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threats the Government had the power to prevent, the Court had not recognized a general exception for all false statements and refused to do so. According to the Court, permitting the Government to criminalize the speech in question would have endorsed Government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements were punishable.