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Man discovers lying about military heroics is a federal crime

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon decide the legal difference between lying and embellishment. Before an appeals court is the case of a man who pretended to be a military veteran. Whether latching onto a false personal history is criminal or an exaggerated use of First Amendment rights may soon be a high court ruling.

The man professed to be an injured Marine with vivid stories of combat experience. No one, including admiring veterans, doubted his war tales until the FBI arrested and charged him with lying. Pretending to be a military hero is a federal crime under a law called the Stolen Valor Act.

When confronted, the man did not lie to authorities but reasoned that his military fabrications were constitutionally protected. At least one court has agreed. The military falsehoods case has reached the level of a federal appeals court, where prosecutors are expected to argue that the man went beyond lying to a criminal act of combat hero identity theft.

Veterans' groups assert that there have been thousands of people who have falsely claimed experiences related to military service they've never performed. So far, the U.S. Justice Department has taken over 60 people to court under the Stolen Valor Act. A conviction can mean fines, community service and up to a year of prison time.

The lawyer for the man says the courts need tread carefully because false personal statements are not necessarily equal to fraud, perjury or defamation. He raises the concern that, should the Stolen Valor Act be upheld, the Supreme Court might open a can of legal worms about the fine line between exaggeration and crime.

Source: Tampa Bay online, "Appeals court weighs legality of lying about military service law," 22 May 2011

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