Society

Free Speech Threat: Lying About Being a War Hero a Crime?

| by Rutherford Institute

Federal courts in California and Colorado are grappling with whether the First Amendment protects those who brag or exaggerate about their past, and specifically lie about being war heroes.

At the center of the two cases against men who claimed to have received a U.S. military medal is the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to lie about such claims, even if the liar doesn't intend to profit from the fib, The Washington Post reports.

The Post quotes George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who argues that the Stolen Valor Act raises constitutional questions because it bans bragging or exaggerating about yourself.

"Half the pickup lines in bars across the country could be criminalized under that concept," he said.

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But Craig Missakian, a federal prosecutor in California, countered that deliberate lies aren't protected. He also maintains that Congress has the authority to protect the value and worth of military medals.

Missakian is prosecuting Xavier Alvarez, who has been elected to a seat on a water district board in 2007 when he boasted he was a retired Marine who'd won the Medal of Honor. It turns out Alvarez never served in the military. Alvarez pleaded guilty, but is appealing on the First Amendment question.

Also challenging the law is Colorado resident Rick Glen Strandlof, who'd claimed to be a former Marine wounded in Iraq and awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star. Military officials have no such record of service, the Post reports. Strandlof has pleaded not guilty.

In January, the Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in Strandlof's case, arguing that the law ought to be redrafted so that it's not used to prosecute those who are simply lying.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, told the Denver Post that Congress needs to "redraft the law to prove a particularized damage."

"If you run around Denver and yell out, 'I got the Medal of Honor,' you are guilty of the statute the way it is written," Whitehead said.