Law punishing fake heroes may go to Supreme Court

DENVER — The Justice Department is battling to save a federal law that makes it illegal to lie about being a war hero, appealing two court rulings that the statute is an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

The fight could be carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it would face an uncertain fate, legal analysts said.

“This is a Supreme Court that is friendly to parties asserting speech rights and skeptical about restrictions on those rights,” said Kannon Shanmugam, a former Justice Department official.

Supporters of the law take the opposite view.

“It could wind up being the kind of landmark decision that the Supreme Court is going to have to give very serious and very broad consideration to, and I think they’ll come down on our side,” said Doug Sterner, a military historian.

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have won a military medal, whether or not an impostor seeks financial gain.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and a federal district court in Denver have both ruled the law is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Last week, government lawyers in California asked the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling, calling it a decision of “exceptional importance.” Prosecutors noted that the three-judge panel was split 2-1 with sharply differing views, and that the law is also under challenge in Colorado.

The 9th Circuit hasn’t said whether it will take a second look.



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