Commentary: False claims of military service and free speech

Veterans who served their country in time of war believe there's a special place in purgatory for people who claim service medals they didn't earn. Even worse are the wannabes, pretenders who never served in the military, much less in combat, yet claim to be veterans of valor.

Every false claim insults the troops who by their service exhibited extraordinary courage and merit recognition from a grateful nation.

So many a soldier's heart was wounded when a federal judge in Colorado ruled it unconstitutional to criminalize false claims to military medals.

In 2006, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Stolen Valor Act, which strengthened existing statutes covering the unauthorized wearing of or laying claim to military decorations or medals awarded by Congress or the armed forces. Previously, only false claims about the Medal of Honor were federal misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine. The Stolen Valor Act made it a crime to falsely claim to have received any military medal for valor.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn dismissed a case against a Colorado man who falsely claimed he was a Marine captain who was wounded while serving in Iraq and received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

Blackburn said the law unconstitutionally punished speech based on its content without a compelling government interest to justify the restriction. The decision set precedent only in the District of Colorado but may open up additional court challenges nationwide.

As some critics predicted when the act was signed into law, it ran headlong into the right to free speech.

The First Amendment's protective umbrella often covers ugly, disturbing and even hateful comments. Government can't punish speech it simply doesn't like.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.star-telegram.com.