The Supreme Court had a busy day yesterday, and in the wake of healthcare, there’s a risk of overlooking an important addition to this Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence: U.S. v. Alvarez.
In short, the Court found that Congress can’t send you to jail just for lying. Alvarez confirms that this Court is extremely reluctant to create new FirstAmendment exceptions, and has a speech-protective understanding of the marketplace of ideas. Alvarez also leaves open some interesting questions, both doctrinal and practical.
Alvarez was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act (18 USC s. 704) for lying about having received the Congressional Medal of Honor. What made this case particularly interesting, and probably what split the Court, is that Alvarez did not lie to gain money, or to get a job. He didn’t lie for any apparent reason. He just lied.
The Court split 4-2-3, with six affirming the Ninth Circuit and finding the Act unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy wrote the plurality, Justice Breyer wrote the concurrence (joined by Justice Kagan), and Justice Alito rather unsurprisingly wrote the dissent.
The plurality forcefully reiterated what the Court articulated two years ago in U.S. v. Stevens (2010): content-based restrictions on speech are subject to strict scrutiny, with limited exceptions that have been clearly established in prior caselaw. What was (again!) at stake in this decision was whether the First Amendment protects all speech except for the familiar carveouts, or presents an “ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits” with each new proposed exception (at 4, quoting U.S. v. Stevens (2010)).
The plurality went the First-Amendment-protective route. Its “historic and traditional categories” of First Amendment exceptions present a familiar roster: obscenity, fighting words, incitement, and the rest. False speech as false speech is not one of the historical exceptions, and the plurality made it perfectly clear that it does not plan to add to the list. In Stevens, then, the Court said what it meant about not intending to add to historical First Amendment exceptions. Future brief-writers would do well to keep this in mind.
Eugene Volokh in his Amicus brief feared that if the Court went the route of protecting false speech, the First Amendment would become a patchwork of under-theorized exceptions to that rule. The plurality proved him wrong. It both articulated theoretical underpinnings for existing exceptions that do involve false speech, and took the Government to task for advocating an overly restrictive understanding of the marketplace of ideas.
The plurality walked through two general categories of exceptions to First Amendment protection for false speech. These categories are effectively distinguished from most false speech as “false speech-plus.” Each is not just false speech, but has an additional element.
The first kind of false speech not subject to First Amendment protection is false speech where there is a legally cognizable harm to an individual, such as an invasion of privacy or legal costs. This category includes defamation and fraud (at 7). Robert Post might further add that these kinds of crimes and torts generally take place outside of the public sphere, and so are subject to less First Amendment protection because they involve individual relationships rather than public-facing speech.
The second kind of false speech not subject to First Amendment protection is false speech that impedes a government function (eg perjury or lying to a federal officer), or abuses government power without authorization (eg impersonating a Government officer). Here, no direct injury to an individual is required. The plurality found that these two types of laws are similar because both “protect the integrity of Government processes” (at 9).
The more serious and broad-sweeping theoretical debate resolved by the Alvarez plurality concerns a fundamental understanding of the marketplace of ideas.
In the historical understanding of the marketplace of ideas, speech competes with speech towards the pursuit of “truth” (although truth is more accurately understood as political truth, not just truth in the sense of non-falsity). Thus Volokh is probably correct when he writes that historically, false speech was considered of lower value in the marketplace of ideas than true speech.
However, the present-day understanding of the marketplace of ideas is that it’s impossible to determine which speech has high value, and which speech has low value. Speech competes, and listeners choose what to believe, but there’s no competition towards an absolute truth-in-the-sense-of-non-falsity, or towards higher values that have been officially designated as such. The Court acknowledged as much in Cohen v. California, which often gets misread as being a case about political speech, where it’s in fact about protecting traditionally low-value expression.
The Alvarez plurality explicitly rejects the proposal that false speech is low value speech and thus not subject to full First Amendment protections. “The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society.” (at 15)
The plurality thus articulates a speech-protective and autonomy-driven understanding of the marketplace of ideas, where the marketplace is self-correcting, and Congress has no place determining what is true, or good or bad, apart from protecting individuals from legally cognizable harms and from abuse of government structures and government power.
Both doctrinal and practical questions remain after Alvarez, unsurprisingly.
Doctrinally, the question is what type of scrutiny applies to false speech. The plurality employed strict scrutiny, while the concurrence used intermediate scrutiny. It is not clear what the Court will employ in the future.
Using intermediate scrutiny to strike down the Act, it should be noted, creates a strange tension between this case and commercial speech doctrine, which allocates First Amendment protection only to commercial speech that is not misleading. Intermediate scrutiny may also raise questions about trademark dilution, where no competition, commercial harm, or likelihood of confusion need be shown. The concurrence thus struggles with trademark dilution on pp 6-7, where the majority could probably get rid of —or at least restrict the scope of— the trademark problem by applying intermediate strutiny.
Practically speaking, the Act might survive on rewriting. The Act might be rewritten to require that the liar lie for the purpose of receiving a benefit. Alternatively, the Act could be rewritten to penalize lying where the liar benefited from the lie (ie, harm was accomplished as a result of the lie). If the Act were thus rewritten, it’s not clear how the plurality would treat it with respect to historic exceptions and their justifications. It also seems likely that the concurrence would switch sides.
It’s worth noting the implications of Alvarez for the ongoing discussion of anonymous speech, and the use of online personae. If Alvarez had gone the other way, the Court might have made it possible for Congress to prohibit the use of pseudonyms, or “fake names,” online. Lying about your identity is another way of describing choosing to hide your real identity, which would have brought the case into conflict with McIntyre v. Ohio and other doctrine on anonymous speech. I’m not sure that a good doctrinal distinction could be developed between positively asserting that you are another person , and choosing a pseudonym for the purpose of hiding your identity. For now, at least, thanks to Alvarez, the distinction between legal and illegal pseudonymous behavior appears to rest clearly in the additional element of harm the Court noted must be shown for fraud, or the performance of some other tort or crime.
There is another fast-developing area potentially impacted by Alvarez that the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale has been working on all year: the regulation of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, where states require the centers to explain that they are not actually doctors and do not actually provide medical services such as abortion. On this issue, though, I’ll defer to my colleague Jennifer Keighley, who has a piece forthcoming on the matter.
But leaving all this aside, there’s a very simple reason Alvarez was correctly decided.
As Kozinski noted below, people lie an awful lot.