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Court: Stolen Valor Act Unconstitutional

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PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday upheld an earlier ruling by three of its members that a law making it illegal to lie about being a military hero violates free speech.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision strikes down the so-called Stolen Valor Act passed by Congress in 2006.

It also vacates a judgment and fines leveled against Xavier Alvarez, of Pomona, Calif., a water district board member who said at a public meeting in 2007 that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. Alvarez had never served in Marines or in any other branch of the armed forces, according to the court ruling.

Alvarez was indicted in 2007. He pleaded guilty on condition that he would be allowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds. He was sentenced under the Stolen Valor Act to more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans hospital and fined $5,000.

Making lies of that sort would implicate “the JDater who falsely claims he’s Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won’t hurt a bit,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. “Phrases such as ‘I’m working late tonight, hunny,’ ‘I got stuck in traffic’ and ‘I didn’t inhale’ could all be made into crimes,” Kozinski wrote in denying a full-court re-hearing of the case.

The Stolen Valor Act revised and toughened a law that forbids anyone to wear a military medal that wasn’t earned.

Dozens of people have been arrested under the law at a time when veterans coming home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being embraced as heroes. Many of the cases involve men who simply got caught living a lie without profiting from it. Almost all the impostors have been ordered to perform community service.

Seven of the court’s 26 active judges disagreed, signing a dissent from the decision not to rehear the Alvarez case, the first in which someone was charged and convicted under the challenged act, the court said.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on whether government lawyers will appeal the decision.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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