Should wearing unearned military medals be criminal offence? - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Should those caught wearing unearned military medals be treated as criminals?

By Elizabeth Gentle - bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - A federal law was passed in 2005 that makes it a crime to wear military insignia that you did not earn.

But one law professor says prosecuting that crime crosses the line when it comes to freedom of speech.

More and more people are facing accusations of claiming unearned military medals.

One such case recently out of Denver where a man claimed to be a decorated war hero.

His attorney says he lied but is protected by the Constitution.

Skyler Smith a former soldier made news headlines when he was accused of wearing military medals he didn't earn.

He allegedly pined onto his uniform two purple hearts, and several other military insignia's.

Smith says he's not guilty of committing the crime.

Federal prosecutors say differently, that Smith violated the Stolen Valor Act.

"Since 2003 since the U.S. has been at war both in Iraq and Afghanistan we've seen a lot more of these," said Federal Prosecutor David Estes.

But now prosecution of such cases is coming under fire, saying it raises constitutional questions of free speech.

And that, in some cases, lies about being a decorated war veteran are protected by the First Amendment and some civil liberties organizations.

Brian Oaks is a defense attorney who says the 2005 Valor Law does have gray areas.

"The statue itself is very broad and quiet possibly capture a lot of activity that might not necessarily be otherwise prohibited like wearing costumes to party or things of that nature," Oaks said.

Some legal adversaries in other states say the law is poorly written and should not be used to prosecute people for simply telling lies.

So where do you draw the line between free speech and criminal conduct?

"If a person is using some type of fraud to make money for themselves organization that is a totally different ball game that invokes fraud," said Oakes.

Since 2005 federal prosecutors have charged 48 people under the Stolen Valor Act.

If convicted it carries a punishment ranging from fines to six months in prison.

©2010 WAFF. All rights reserved.

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