“Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.”
More people have opinions about United States Supreme Court decisions than trouble to read them. For at least two reasons, that’s a shame. First, those people tend not to know what they’re talking about. Second, they miss gems of rhetoric—rhetoric used here in its academic sense—fashioned by scholars talented not only the law but in the language. Case in point: United States v. Alvarez, in which, 5-4, the court found unconstitutional a law popularly known as the Stolen Valor Act.
The statute made it a crime for people to say they had won such military decorations as the Congressional Medal of Honor if they hadn’t. It mattered not whether the falsehood was uttered to gullible voters, or foisted on naive grandkids, or gabbled in jest. Court critics, their minds perhaps beclouded by a surplus of what passes these days for patriotism, said the majority had legalized lying.
The justices, however, only concluded that the First Amendment is more hostile to content-based restrictions on speech than it is to crackbrained bluster.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, found no need to bring the force of federal law to bear on cretins when ready to hand is the more powerful remedy of the public ridicule to which phonies are richly entitled. Nor, for a nation in which truth goes unfettered, does the honor of the men and women who distinguished themselves in the nation’s service require the protection of politicians. As Lincoln suggested about what happened one long ago Fourth of July at Gettysburg, their valor is far above anyone’s poor power to add or detract.
Justice Kennedy—who it should be noted in the interests of full disclosure is a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation trustee—wrote: “Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle.”
In a passage that could be chiseled on the walls in the hall of freedom, he concludes: “The American people do not need the assistance of a government prosecution to express their high regard for the special place that military heroes hold in our tradition. Only a weak society needs government protection or intervention before it pursues its resolve to preserve the truth. Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.”
- Find the entire opinion, including the dissent, at