DENVER – A law that makes it illegal to lie about being a war hero is unconstitutional because it violates free speech, a federal judge ruled Friday as he dismissed a case against a Colorado man who claimed he received two military medals.
Rick Glen 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 dismissed the case and said the law is unconstitutional, ruling the government did not show it has a compelling reason to restrict that type of statement.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Denver said prosecutors are reviewing the decision and haven't decided whether to appeal. The spokesman said that decision would be made by the U.S. Justice Department in Washington and prosecutors in Denver.
Strandlof's lawyer, Bob Pepin, said he hadn't spoken to Strandlof since the ruling was issued. Pepin said he would advise Strandlof not to comment publicly because the case might be appealed.
"Obviously, we think this is the right decision, or we wouldn't have been making the objections to the statute to begin with," he said. Pepin said Strandlof has been living in a halfway house in Denver while his case is in the courts.
The law has also been challenged in California and in a case now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Denver attorney Christopher P. Beall, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the Stolen Valor Act is fatally flawed because it doesn't require prosecutors to show anyone was harmed or defamed by the lie.
"The government position was that any speech that's false is not protected by the First Amendment. That proposition is very dangerous," Beall said.
"It puts the government in a much more powerful position to prosecute people for speaking out on things they believe to be true but turn out not to be true," he said.
Beall said the ACLU was not defending the actions Strandlof is accused of, but took issue with the principle behind the law.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who sponsored the Stolen Valor Act in the House, predicted the decision will be overturned on appeal.
"This is an issue of fraud plain and simple," Salazar said in a written release. "The individuals who violate this law are those who knowingly portray themselves as pillars of the community for personal and monetary gain."
Pam Sterner, who as a college student wrote a policy analysis that became the basis of Salazar's bill, said the issue isn't free speech but misrepresentation. Sterner, a former Coloradan who now lives in Virginia, said authentic medal winners' credibility suffers when impostors are exposed because the public becomes suspicious of even true stories of heroism.