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Feb 22, 2012 8:34 PM by Matt Stafford

Supreme Court hears Stolen Valor arguments; local case hangs in the balance

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the question of whether the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional. It's a law designed to punish people who lie about being war heroes.

The case, hearing arguments on Wednesday, is against Xavier Alvarez; a man who falsely claimed at a public meeting to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The questions the court is considering are whether lies of military service have any protection under the first amendment, and who do they harm?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional in United States v. Alvarez.

However, recently, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in a local case that the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional. This is the case against Richard Strandlof; who federal investigators charged with lying about his military service record.

"The good and the bad that I saw that day are forever etched in my mind and in my memory," Richard Strandlof said at 9/11 remembrance ceremony in 2008. He was going by the name Rick Duncan then, and that day he was telling a crowd that he was a Marine at the Pentagon during the attacks. It was a lie.

Strandlof also lied about graduating from the Naval Academy, and serving three tours of duty in Iraq. He was running a veterans advocacy group, called the Colorado Veterans Alliance, which he founded. The group disbanded after the allegations came out about Strandlof.

In 2009 he was arrested on federal charges for violating the Stolen Valor Act. Strandlof spoke with News 5 from prison.

"I admit that not everything I said was as factual as I wish it had been in the past," said Strandlof in June 2009, but he wouldn't admit to lying about military service.

"There's a time and a place for that, and I don't believe that time and place is now or here," said Strandlof. He mentioned having mental problems that he was working on, like being diagnosed as bi-polar and schizophrenic.

Charges against Strandlof were thrown out by a federal judge the next year, saying the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional - fringing on free speech rights.

However, that's when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver stepped in and said in January that the Stolen Valor Act is legal.

With disagreement between the Ninth and Tenth Circuit appellate courts, Alvarez's stolen valor case coming from the Ninth Circuit is now in the Supreme Court.

"Concern about the Stolen Valor Act, and its constitutionality has been there ever since it was passed in 2005," says Josh Dunn, an associate professor of Political Science at U.C.C.S. He teaches courses on constitutional law.

"The court has said that false statements of fact aren't protected, and so you typically think of libel and slander," says Dunn. "But they haven't gone into this area yet, so how far does that exception to protection actually extend?"

The court may give an interpretation of the law for the rest of the country to follow, or dismiss it completely.

"Let's say that they do strike it down; they could say that these are the constitutional problems with the law. You could imagine Congress going back and rewriting the law to satisfy the Supreme Court," explains Dunn.

A decision from the high court should come by June.

Strandlof originally pleaded not guilty before his charges were thrown out. If the Supreme Court finds that the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional, Strandlof could face those charges again.

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