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SCOTUS Overturns 10th Circuit on Stolen Valor Act

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 28, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The vast majority of Thursday’s news cycle will be dedicated the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. A far smaller portion of news coverage will examine the Court’s decision to overturn the Stolen Valor Act.

Within that Stolen Valor Act coverage, you’ll likely hear stories about Xavier Alvarez, the California man who lied about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, and found himself arguing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court that the Act was unconstitutional.

The talking heads, however, will most likely overlook Rick Strandlof, the Colorado man who lost a nearly-identical argument before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rick Strandlof never served in the military, but he didn't let that stop him from founding the Colorado Veterans Alliance. He frequently told veterans he graduated from the United States Naval Academy, was a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, and had been wounded in combat in Iraq. He further claimed that he had received the Purple Heart, which is given to soldiers wounded or killed in action, and the Silver Star, which is awarded for gallantry in battle.

Local veterans, unconvinced and annoyed by Strandlof's claims, contacted the FBI. The government, in turn, investigated and filed a criminal complaint in the District of Colorado charging Strandlof with making false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals, in violation of the Stolen Valor Act.

Strandlof pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss the charges. The district court rejected the government's contention that false speech is unprotected under the First Amendment, found the Act facially unconstitutional, and granted Strandlof's motion.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court in January, finding "false statements of fact do not enjoy constitutional protection, except to the extent necessary to protect more valuable speech. Under this principle, the Stolen Valor Act does not impinge on or chill protected speech, and therefore does not offend the First Amendment."

Thursday's Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Alvarez, finding that the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment, overturns the Tenth Circuit's ruling.

While Rick Strandlof may be off the hook, that doesn't mean that military fraudsters should continue lying about military service in the future: The Court's opinion doesn't stop Congress from adopting a less-restrictive version of the Stolen Valor Act.

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