BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. -- Wearing the uniform or the medals would land a faker in trouble, but lying about earning military honors is free speech. So said the Supreme Court on Thursday.
The court's ruling that struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 means that people convicted under the former federal law that made it a crime to lie about having received medals such as the Medal of Honor and other military awards now may have grounds for appeals.
"It would then create grounds for someone to seek relief," said David Greene, an attorney with the First Amendment Center based in San Rafael, Calif. "This law was unconstitutional. If Congress wants to make it a crime, they need to write a better law."
Vietnam veteran Gary B. Amster of Palm Bay was sentenced in 2010 to 60 months probation in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla., for claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. Federal court documents show that Amster claimed verbally and in writing that he had been awarded the medal.
Amster could not be reached by telephone, but according to court documents, he told the judge that although his original separation papers he received 40 years ago did not indicate a Medal of Honor, he received new paperwork, a second 214 form that indicated "additional medals that could possibly be added on, and that will be mailed to you at a later date."
Catherine Cameron, a Stetson University professor of law who teaches and researches legal writing and media law, said the ruling wouldn't automatically overturn a case or a sentence handed down under Stolen Valor, but the defense attorney would have to file a motion with the court seeking relief.
Cameron said that the law was too broad. The court did say it was wrong, but that lying about receiving medals was seen as a First Amendment right.
"It's not an unpatriotic opinion by any means," she said.
But the reversal and possible relief for those convicted of crimes under Stolen Valor strikes a chord with local veterans.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Cleland of Melbourne said the court failed to understand the military.
"It never really occurred to me that the Supreme Court would overturn the law," said Cleland, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam as parachute infantry commander. "It's a lack of respect for the men and women who serve their country."
By R. NORMAN MOODY