Monday, May 23, 2011

Colorado Man Who Lied About His Military Service Fighting For Rights To Tell Lies

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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Strandlof was eventually arrested by the F.B.I. 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, Mr. Strandlof has been fighting the case against him, arguing that the law violates his right to free speech. Simply telling a lie, his lawyers assert, does not always constitute a crime.

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

Mr. Strandlof’s case is the latest legal challenge to the Stolen Valor Act. The appellate court’s ruling in Colorado — expected in the next few months — is being eagerly awaited by legal experts and veterans groups, as it will most likely determine whether the United States 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 helped draft the law’s language and who has spent years tracking down those who falsely claim to be war heroes. “Why should the Army give out a Silver Star to someone who performs heroically if anybody who wants one can buy a medal, print a citation and claim it with impunity?”

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

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

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