Law against fake war heroes unconstitutional, judge rules
DENVER — A law that makes it illegal to lie about being a war hero is unconstitutional because it violates free speech rights, a federal judge ruled Friday as he dismissed a case against a Colorado man who claimed he received two military medals.
Rick Strandlof claimed he was an ex-Marine who was wounded in Iraq and received the Purple Heart and Silver Star, but the military had no record he ever served. He was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have won a military medal.
U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn said the law is un- claimed he was a decorated Marine. constitutional, ruling the government didn’t show it has a compelling reason to restrict that type of statement.
Strandlof, 32, posed as “Rick Duncan,” a wounded Marine captain, and used that persona to found the Colorado Veterans Alliance and solicit money for the group. Actual veterans who served on its board were suspicious of his claims and reported him to the FBI.
Strandlof ’s attorney, the ACLU of Colorado and the Rutherford Institute all filed briefs contesting the Stolen Valor Act. They argued that simply lying isn’t illegal.
Chris Beall, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the ACLU, said the Stolen Valor Act is fatally flawed because it doesn’t require prosecutors to show anyone was harmed by the lie.
“The First Amendment protects speech we don’t like,” he said. “We don’t need the First Amendment for speech people like. The government cannot criminalize a statement simply because it is false.”
Beall said that Strandlof wasn’t charged with stealing money for the veterans group and that laws were already in place for such crimes.
“That’s plain old, regular, vanilla, everyday fraud, and we do prosecute that every day,” he said. “Congress does not need a special statute to prevent people from using false claims of valor in order to prevent fraud.”
John Wagner, executive director of the Warrior Legacy Foundation, a veterans group that lobbied for Strandlof’s prosecution, said he will push for an appeal.
Wagner argued that the ruling means he can put on a police uniform and walk around lying to people about his bravery and arrests to gain favors from others, such as a free cup of coffee.
“I would be trying to extract benefits I wouldn’t otherwise deserve,” he said.