A federal law that prohibited people from wearing military medals they didn’t earn is unconstitutional for the same reason as a law that made it a crime to lie about earning a medal, a federal appeals court ruled Monday: It’s a falsehood that is protected by freedom of speech.
In an 8-3 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the now-repealed law against wearing unearned military decorations was a ban on a type of “symbolic speech.”
Although the government can forbid falsehoods that cause tangible harm, like fraud or perjury, the Constitution restricts government regulation of expression based solely on its content, the court said.
“Suppressing a symbolic communication threatens the same First Amendment harm as suppressing a written communication,” Judge Sandra Ikuta said in the majority opinion. “Wearing a medal has no purpose other than to communicate a message.”
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