Denver appeals court weighs military impostor law

DENVER — 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 today.

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 Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on 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.

The 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.

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.

The law, passed by Congress in 2006, makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have received a medal from the U.S. military.

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.

“We are awash in a sea of protected false speech,” Carlson said.

Both lawyers declined to comment after the hearing. The judges didn’t say when they would rule.


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