Monday, October 11, 2010

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. 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. The Stolen Valor Act, which breezed through Congress in 2006, revised and toughened an existing statute that forbade anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned. Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the Stolen Valor Act answers no real legal need but was written for political reasons, so lawmakers could show they are on the side of real heroes by punishing impostors. "There's already a considerable deterrent for people who are engaged in this kind of conduct," he said. "Many of these people are charged with fraud. If someone is only wearing medals without seeking any form of gain, it becomes highly questionable." Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said the court traditionally requires the government to prove it has a compelling interest to restrict free speech, which could be difficult in this case. "I don't think that anybody's going to stop being a brave soldier, or be a less brave soldier, or have less respect for a brave soldier, because some number of people lie about it," he said. - DAN ELLIOTT

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