Lies, Honor, & the Government’s Good Name: Seditious Libel & the Stolen Valor Act

21 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2012 Last revised: 21 Feb 2012

See all articles by Christina E. Wells

Christina E. Wells

University of Missouri School of Law

Date Written: February 6, 2012


Later this term the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which punishes anyone who falsely represents themselves to have been awarded certain military medals. Although the Court declared the crime of seditious libel inconsistent with the First Amendment long ago, the Act revives something very like that crime. The connection between the two crimes is not immediately obvious but the government’s underlying reasoning is nearly identical in both. Officials justified seditious libel prosecutions by claiming, without proof, that criticism of the government undermined its authority and reduced the public’s respect for it, ultimately threatening national security. Contemporary government officials argue, without proof, that the Act is necessary because lies dilute the “prestige and honor” of military medals, undermining the reputations of those who receive them and military readiness.

The Court’s rejection of seditious libel suggests that the Stolen Valor Act is similarly unconstitutional. The Court’s low value speech jurisprudence, which was at the core of lower court disputes over the Act, evolved in response to the government’s pursuit of seditious libel prosecutions. That jurisprudence requires a tight causal nexus between speech and harm, which is completely lacking in the government’s justification of the Stolen Valor Act. The Court has also rejected the government’s interest in protecting it’s own “honor” or “dignity”, the core interest the Act seeks to protect. Laws based in such interests compel respect for government and establish government orthodoxy, which is inconsistent with the Court’s jurisprudence.

Keywords: stolen valor act, valor, medals, seditious, libel, military, valor

Suggested Citation

Wells, Christina E., Lies, Honor, & the Government’s Good Name: Seditious Libel & the Stolen Valor Act (February 6, 2012). UCLA Law Review Discourse, Forthcoming, University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-01, Available at SSRN: or

Christina E. Wells (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO MO 65211
United States

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