On the final day of its session Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that made it illegal to lie about receiving military honors. The case involves a Pomona man who fabricated a story about his war medals.
Three Valleys Municipal Water District board member Xavier Alvarez used to wow people with his elaborate tales of combat heroism. He said he served in the U.S. Marines for 25 years. He didn’t.
He said he was wounded while trying to rescue an American ambassador caught in a war zone. He wasn’t and he didn’t.
Fellow water board director Brian Bowcock says the lies piled up fast.
“He’d always get up and say, 'Hi, my name is Xavier Alvarez. I’m a director at Three Valleys, and I really don’t like to brag about it, but I’m also a Medal of Honor recipient,'” recalled Bowcock.
He says the war stories got so outlandish they sounded like some cheesy Steven Seagal action movie.
“He even got to where he’d wear his hair pulled back in a bun like Steven Seagal, and show up at board meetings in his T-shirt and sunglasses,” said Bowcock.
After Alvarez spun another tale about being a former hard-charging deputy with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (he wasn’t), Bowcock started checking around. He did find a Medal of Honor recipient named Xavier Alvarez.
“The only way I knew it wasn’t him, this guy [the Medal of Honor recipient] had lost both arms,” Bowcock said.
The real Medal recipient had also passed away. Bowcock notified federal authorities.
Alvarez never actually served in any branch of the U.S. military. Bowcock took the lies personally, as his father died in combat during World War II when Bowcock was just two months old.
A federal court convicted Alvarez under the Stolen Valor law, but he argued that the First Amendment protected his fabrications. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
It ruled that the law’s aim was too broad and that it failed to consider whether the lie resulted in some kind of material gain. Alvarez’s federal public defender, Jonathan Libby, said the Court got it right.
“This was actually a concern expressed by many justices during oral arguments. It could open the floodgates for all sorts of statutes that Congress could pass that criminalize people’s statements,” said Libby, who argued the case before the Supreme Court.
“Lying about extramarital affairs, lying about how you look on a dating site, all of these could potentially then become federal crimes, and since lying as a general principal is not among these historical categories of unprotected speech, this law violated the First Amendment."
In its ruling, the high court suggests that enacting a similar but more precise statute could result in an amended law that protects the dignity of military personnel and veterans while passing constitutional muster.
Such a proposal is currently working its way through Congress. Even so, Bowcock says the Supreme Court’s decision stings.
“There’s gonna be soldiers in the future that are gonna look at that and say, 'OK, big deal, anybody can brag about it, anybody can say they have it and don’t,'” said an emotional Bowcock.
“My dad was killed in World War II and … it really upsets me this kind of thing goes on."
Attorney Libby says the ruling pleases his client, Xavier Alvarez, who has publicly expressed remorse for duping so many people. He just finished a three-year stint in prison for an unrelated felony conviction. That conviction makes Alvarez ineligible to ever hold elected office again.