August 23, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Stolen Valor Act Is Constitutional; Restricts Only Knowingly False Statements of Fact and Does Not Overreach to Chill Protected Speech

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Strandlof on Friday, January 27, 2012.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. Respondent, despite never having served in the armed forces, founded the Colorado Veterans Alliance and frequently told veterans that 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 also bragged of receiving a Purple Heart, which is given to soldiers wounded or killed in action, and he boasted that he had been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in battle. After discovering the ruse, the government charged Respondent with making false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals in violation of the Stolen Valor Act. Reasoning that false statements are generally protected by the First Amendment, the district court declared the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional and dismissed the charges against Respondent.

The Court disagreed with the district court’s analysis. “The sole question presented is whether the Stolen Valor Act, a content-based restriction on speech, is facially constitutional.” The Court found that it is and reversed the district court’s decision. “As the Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted, the Constitution does not foreclose laws criminalizing knowing falsehoods, so long as the laws allow ‘breathing space’ for core protected speech—as the Supreme Court calls it, ‘speech that matters.’ . . . [U]nder this legal framework, the Stolen Valor Act survives scrutiny because (1) it restricts only knowingly false statements of fact, and (2) specific characteristics of the statute, including its mens rea requirement, ensure it does not overreach so as to chill protected speech.”

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