Law against fake war he­roes un­con­sti­tu­tional, judge rules

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Felisa Car­dona

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.

Rick Strandlof

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