The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided Wednesday over a law that makes it a crime to lie about having been awarded top military honors.
The justices engaged in spirited debate over the constitutionality of a 2006 law aimed at curbing false claims about military exploits and its possible impact on First Amendment free-speech protections.
Some justices said they worried that upholding the Stolen Valor Act could lead to other limits on speech, including laws that might make it illegal to lie about an extramarital affair or a college degree or to impress a date.
“Where do you stop?” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked at one point.
But the chief justice later joined other justices in indicating that the court could make clear that if it upheld the law, it would only be endorsing an effort to prevent people from demeaning the system of military honors established by Gen. George Washington in 1782.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed the least-willing member of the court to accept the administration’s argument. She questioned the argument that the value of the highest award, the Medal of Honor, or any others has been diminished because some people lie about having received them.
Justice Sotomayor said the issue provokes a justifiable emotional reaction but also said previous Supreme Court cases make clear that giving offense by itself is not enough to justify laws that limit speech.
“So outside of the emotional reaction, where’s the harm? And I’m not minimizing it. I, too, take offense when people make these kinds of claims, but I take offense when someone I’m dating makes a claim that’s not true,” said Justice Sotomayor, who is divorced.
On the other side was Justice Antonin Scalia. “When Congress passed this legislation, I assume it did so because it thought that the value of the awards that these courageous members of the armed forces were receiving was being demeaned and diminished by charlatans. That’s what Congress thought,” Justice Scalia said.
Jonathan Libby, the federal public defender arguing against the law, said Congress’ intent is hard to discern because it passed the legislation without any hearings.
Mr. Libby’s client, Xavier Alvarez, was one of the first people prosecuted for violating the Stolen Valor Act. Mr. Alvarez told a meeting of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Pomona, Calif., to which he had been elected, that he was a wounded war veteran who had received the Medal of Honor.
He never served in the armed forces.
Mr. Libby said public exposure of lies about military medals is preferable to prosecution. Mr. Alvarez “still was exposed for who he was, which was a liar,” the lawyer said.
The two federal appeals courts that have considered the issue have come to different conclusions. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the law in Mr. Alvarez’s case. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the law in the case of another false claim of military valor.
Civil-liberties groups, writers, publishers and news media outlets, including the Associated Press, have told the justices they worry that the law, and especially the administration’s defense of it, could lead to more attempts by government to regulate speech.
Veterans groups are backing the administration, and a decision is expected by late June.