USA TODAY US Edition
Marine’s Facebook rants earn ticket out of the military
Some jobs carry speech restrictions
The Constitution guarantees that Americans can say pretty much whatever they like, but it’s also understood that many jobs come with strict — and perfectly legal — limits on speech.
Just ask Ozzie Guillen, the Miami Marlins’ baseball manager whose praise for Fidel Castro got him suspended for five games after fans in the team’s Little Havana neighborhood erupted in fury. Like many private employers, Guillen’s bosses were free to discipline him for hurting the business.
Employment-related speech limits also apply to lawyers (who can’t publicly disparage judges), reporters (no opinions about issues you’re covering) and many others. In the public sector, the limits are especially strict for members of the active duty military.
The military rules, which date to the Civil War, are there for good reasons: to ensure that the military remains politically neutral and respects the civilian chain of command, and to maintain order and discipline in an organization where the willingness to follow orders is crucial.
Which brings us to the case of Gary Stein, a Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton in California who is accused of repeatedly breaking these rules on Facebook, including his own page and one he started for a group called the Armed Forces Tea Party.
Stein frequently posts derogatory material about President Obama, including superimposing Obama’s face on a movie poster that labels the commander in chief “jackass number one.” He urges his Facebook followers (including nearly 29,000 on the Armed Forces Tea Party page) to vote against Obama. Most significant, during a heated online debate over whether U.S. servicemembers could be tried in Afghanistan for burning the Quran, he said, “As an active duty Marine, I say screw Obama and I will not follow any orders from him . . . I will not salute him . . . Obama is the . . . enemy.” Stein later modified that statement to say he would refuse to obey any “unlawful” order from Obama.
If Stein were a civilian, his views on the commander in chief wouldn’t be a problem. But he’s not, and when he enlisted, he agreed to live by the rules. Instead, he chose not just to cross the line but to gallop past it.
A Defense Department directive explicitly bars active-duty personnel from publishing “partisan political articles, letters or endorsements signed or written by the member that (solicit) votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate or cause.” Stein’s “screw Obama” rant also ran afoul of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which bars behavior that harms the “good order and discipline in the armed forces” or brings “discredit on the armed forces.”
Last week, a Marine administrative panel recommended that Stein receive an “other than honorable” discharge, and the decision now rests with Stein’s commanding general. Stein and his lawyers argue that he was within his free speech rights, and that the military’s rules are vague enough to be unconstitutional.
In fact, the rules are complex. Active-duty servicemembers are allowed to put political bumper stickers on private vehicles and send letters to the editor, as long as they state that their views are their own, and they don’t advocate voting for or against a candidate. The rules were written before the explosion of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and they’re overdue for an update. But any reasonable definition of “publish” includes publicly posting an opinion where some 29,000 followers can read it.
The military can’t, and shouldn’t, prohibit servicemembers from spouting off in the relative privacy of the barracks. Such grousing dates to the Revolutionary War. But that’s different from publicly posting insubordinate comments for all the world to see — a principle that the vast majority of servicemembers understand.