Should lying about military medals be a crime?

The Supreme Court is slated to take up a case today about honor and dishonor, involving lying about receiving a military medal.

It's a disgrace - but should it be a crime?

Xavier Alvarez told an audience in 2007 he was awarded the Medal of Honor -- the highest military distinction in the nation. He was lying.

Now, he's at the center of part of a constitutional battle at the country's highest court.

But he's not the only one who's told phony stories about his military past.

The Medal of Honor is a military distinction bestowed on only a few. And Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and two-time recipient of the Bronze Star, wants it to stay that way.

He's on a mission. From his Virginia home, he exposes people who lie about their military service and the honors they receive.

What motivates them? "It can be anything from trying to pick up a good-looking woman in a bar with your fascinating military history to trying to get elected to political office, to building a persona that people look up to," Sterner says.

Alvarez is one of those who tried to get away with it. In 2007, while serving on a local government board in California, he told an audience he'd been in the Marines for 25 years and received the Medal of Honor - a complete fabrication.

Alvarez was charged and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 federal law that makes lying about military honors a crime. He's appealing to the Supreme Court, arguing the law violates his right to free speech.

Civil liberties advocates agree.

"People have to feel they can speak without being criminally punished," says Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University. " ... We don't need to start to criminalize all things that the government declares to be lies."

But Alvarez isn't the only one who's lied about his military past. According to court documents, 45 people have been prosecuted under Stolen Valor.

Jesse MacBeth was sentenced to five months in prison after he claimed he'd received the Purple Heart for service in Iraq. It turns out he never made it out of Army basic training.

"It's wrong. Ethically, it's wrong," says retired Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness, who received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions in Vietnam, where he also spent six years as a prisoner of war.

He says those who lie about military awards deserve to be punished,

"He is diminishing the honor of the people who want it, who deserve it -- people who deserve it the most," Thorsness says.

Sterner agrees, saying, "If I don't address the phonies when I find them, they pervert the history of the men and women who really did earn these awards."

Sterner says that, while only 45 people have been prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, over the years, in his research, he has come across more than 2,000 people who have lied about their military awards.

What happens if the justices strike down the law?

It was already a federal crime, even before this law, to wear a military award you didn't earn. That will stay in place. And, if (Stolen Valor) is struck down, Congress is already working on a replacement that would make it a crime if you lie about a military award for the purpose of earning a profit. And any piece of legislation intended to protect military heroes flies through Congress.

To see Chip Reid's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.