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SANTA FE — Early this month, we celebrated the many freedoms Americans enjoy. Some recent events have indicated those freedoms have some limitations – but not enough in some people’s minds.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this month that freedom of speech has fewer limitations than perhaps many Americans intended. In the case of Alvarez v. United States, brought under the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, the justices found that simply lying about one’s military awards is not a criminal act.
The court found that Xavier Alvarez is a habitual liar. He lied about having been a professional hockey player and he lied about receiving the Medal of Honor. But the court ruled that since his lies brought him nothing more than possibly a little esteem, they weren’t criminal.
The Stolen Valor Act is pretty sacred to many Americans. A candidate in the New Mexico GOP U.S. Senate primary was accused of violating it and subsequently withdrew his candidacy.
Justices voting in the 6-3 majority maintained that lying is a part of life. “White” lies are valuable to protect privacy, shield a person from prejudice, provide comfort to the sick or preserve a child’s innocence.
If Mr. Alvarez had used his lies to obtain veterans’ benefits, that would have been fraud. We have laws against fraud. But people feel strongly so the Stolen Valor Act is being rewritten to include some specifics about acts in which people will be hurt. Such laws already exist but it will make people feel better.
The answer to the lies of people like Alvarez is public condemnation rather than leaving it to government to do something about it. I’m sure that Xavier Alvarez, a member of the local water board, will never be elected to anything again.
And our first amendment remains safe. The only limitations courts have been willing to consider involve obscenity, libel and “fighting words.” They haven’t ruled, to my knowledge, on yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Maybe teachers told us that one in fifth grade because they were afraid we might do it.
The First Amendment has been through many strange attacks in its long history. The Ku Klux Klan put it to the test, with the courts ruling the Klan had a right to march down the street if no other laws were broken.
The constitution also protects the demonstrators who likely will gather again at Los Alamos in about a week to protest nuclear weapons. They are legal as long as they don’t break other laws. But several years ago an Albuquerque TV station conducted a poll asking if the First Amendment should protect the demonstrators.
A majority said no. But the First Amendments survives.
An interesting test of the First Amendment occurred on the 4th of July in Las Cruces when the prize-winning parade float, sponsored by the local Tea Party, sported a Confederate flag, along with numerous American flags.
The Confederate flag produced a spirited community discussion for the following week. The mayor apologized. The sponsor said it would bow out of future parades unless strict procedures are established to prevent such outcomes in the future. It was an instance of public sentiment dealing with the problem without governmental interference.
A free speech conflict in California last month did involve the government. A young woman walked along a highway sporting a sign warning motorists of a police speed trap. She was arrested.
And then there is the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision extending free speech to cover unlimited political expenditures on behalf of a candidate. The resulting Super PACs have some wondering if the decision might be carrying speech a bit further than our forefathers envisioned.
And now we have the Colorado movie theater shootings creating another debate about whether some type of limits should be placed on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. How many arms does that mean?
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.