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Court weighs Stolen Valor Law

Denver Appeals Court hearing case
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DENVER -- Can Congress can make it illegal to falsely claim to be a military hero? The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments for and against the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have been awarded a military medal.

A law making it illegal to lie about being a war hero is constitutional because it defends the integrity of important military medals and protects the public from being manipulated, a government lawyer told a federal appeals court May 12.

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A defense attorney countered that the law is too broad and doesn't fit any of the narrow exceptions to freedom of speech the courts have allowed.

The court case centers on Rick Strandlof, a Colorado man who was arrested after claiming he was wounded in Iraq as a Marine and had received military medals. His lawyers have acknowledged the claims were false. Strandlof, who founded a veterans group in Colorado Springs, said he had received the Purple Heart and Silver Star. After questions were raised about his claims, the military said it had no record that he ever served, and he was charged in 2009 with violating the law.

The Stolen Valor Act, passed by Congress in 2006, makes it a crime to falsely claim to have received a medal from the U.S. military. A federal judge ruled the law violated the First Amendment. Prosecutors asked the 10th Circuit to uphold the law, which has also been challenged in California.

Justice Department attorney Joe Palmer told a three-judge panel of the appeals court that the law passes constitutional muster because, among other things, the government has a compelling need to punish impostors to protect the integrity of military medals.

Strandlof's lawyer, John T. Carlson, told the judges that the fact a statement might be offensive doesn't mean it isn't protected by the First Amendment.

The judges didn't say when they would rule. Some legal scholars have said they expect the law to eventually land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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