Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a federal law making it a crime to falsely claim military medals earned.
The 6-3 ruling was a free speech victory but perhaps in name only -- for a onetime California public official who publicly lied about winning the prestigious Medal of Honor.
At issue is the constitutional value of false statements of fact, and whether Congress went too far when passing the Stolen Valor Act in 2006.
A former California politician was prosecuted by the Justice Department for publicly stating he had earned the Medal of Honor, when in fact the man, Xavier Alvarez, had never served in the military. That conviction -- and the law itself -- were dismissed.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the law violated free speech protections.
"The nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace," he said. "Though few might find (Alvarez's) statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment."
The decision was announced from the bench just moments before the separate health care reform ruling was issued, which dominated the court's last public session of the term.
The high court has traditionally been skeptical of legislation attempting to limit or regulate "unpopular" speech or free expression -- such as burning the flag, picketing military funerals and the marketing of animal cruelty videos.
In this dispute, Alvarez had won a seat on the Three Valleys Municipal Water District's board of directors in 2007, and at one of his first open meetings claimed to be a retired Marine who won the Medal of Honor in 1987. The highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government is sometimes mistakenly called the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"I got wounded many times by the same guy," Alvarez declared, according to court records. "I'm still around."
Alvarez was prosecuted on one count of falsely verbally claiming to have received the medal. He had conditionally pleaded guilty, reserving his right to later appeal on constitutional grounds. He was fined $5,000, given three years' probation and resigned last fall from the utility board based in Claremont, California.
A key sticking point in the debate for the justices was balancing "harm" versus "value" in the law.
The federal Stolen Valor Act was designed to "protect the reputation" of military decorations, citing "fraudulent claims surrounding the receipt of the Medal of Honor (and other congressionally authorized military medals, decorations, and awards)." Similar laws have been in place since 1948.
In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the law did not go too far. "The speech punished by the Act is not only verifiably false and entirely lacking in intrinsic value, but it also fails to serve any instrumental purpose that the First Amendment might protect," he said. He was supported by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
No one on the bench had much sympathy for Alvarez. "Lying was his habit," Kennedy said bluntly, "a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him."
The issue will have resonance beyond this case. Separate pending cases at the high court deal with whether false information released during a political election campaign is protected speech.
As for Alvarez, he was recently released from the California State Prison in Centinela, convicted separately last year for defrauding the water district.
The case is U.S. v. Alvarez (11-210).