News article: Wearing unearned medals is free speech, US court rules

1/12/2016

Wearing unearned medals is protected by the right to free speech, a U.S. court ruled.

In a contentious decision, a federal appeals court on Monday threw out a case involving a veteran convicted for wearing military medals he hadn't earned, stating that doing so was a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. According to the Associated Press, an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court was specially convened for the occasion.

The Marine at the center of the case is Elven Joe Swisher of Idaho. In 2007, he was convicted for violating the Stolen Valor Act - a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2006 that made it a misdemeanor to falsify military achievements. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional based on free speech violations. Congress passed a new law the following year, however, that made it a crime to make money from false claims of military service. 

Court House News reported that, back in 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs accused Swisher of making false statements, forging documents to obtain veterans benefits, stealing government funds and adorning himself with unauthorized military commendations.

Investigators first began to take a look at Swisher's military record after he testified in 2005 that another man had approached him to kill a federal judge. Swisher wore a Purple Heart in the court room and told stories of how he was severely injured in a fire fight while on a secret mission during the Korean War. Marine Corps officials later testified that such a mission never occurred. 

Judge Sandra Ikuta, who wrote for the majority on Monday, noted that there is no evidence Swisher's deceitful behavior ever hurt someone or convinced them to pursue an action they wouldn't have taken otherwise. 

"We see no basis for [concluding] that wearing a medal is more probative than speaking a lie," Ikuta said, according to Court House News. 

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