1. Archive

Ban on lies about military service weighed by court

Published May 23, 2011

New York Times

DENVER - In 2009, a burly Colorado man named Rick Duncan was a rising star among local veterans groups, advocating on behalf of struggling soldiers and holding forth about his own powerful experiences returning from Iraq as a wounded Marine.

The problem was, none of it was true, not even his name.

Duncan was actually Richard G. Strandlof, a troubled drifter who had never served in the military. Instead, he used his bogus story to work his way into the company of prominent politicians and admiring veterans.

Strandlof was eventually arrested by the FBI and charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law that makes it a federal crime to lie about being a military hero.

But though he admitted conjuring the entire tale, Strandlof has been fighting the case against him, arguing that the law violates his right to free speech.

Now, a federal appeals court in Denver is weighing whether the act is indeed unconstitutional. In July, a judge dismissed the case against Strandlof on First Amendment grounds, but prosecutors appealed.

Strandlof's case is the latest legal challenge to the Stolen Valor Act. The appellate court's ruling in Colorado - expected in the coming months - is being eagerly awaited by legal experts and veterans groups, as it will most likely determine whether the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the matter.

"Stolen Valor is not just lying: It is stealing an identity of a combat hero or a wounded soldier," said Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who has spent years tracking down those who falsely claim to be war heroes and who helped draft the law's language.

Since Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, the Justice Department has prosecuted more than 60 people for violating the current law - penalties can range from up to a year in prison to fines and community service. Sterner says thousands more cases are reported each year.

But the recent challenges have left the law's future uncertain.

Strandlof's federal public defender, John T. Carlson, has said that false statements covered by the law could not be grouped with other free speech exceptions like defamation, fraud and perjury. If Stolen Valor is upheld, he argued, the government could find itself regulating any false statements, whether harmful or not.