San Diego, CA – Marine Sgt. Gary Stein is facing discharge for his action in posting negative comments about President Obama on his “Armed Forces Tea Party” Facebook page. The case has renewed debate about the rights of military personnel when it comes to free speech.
A military review board recommended this past Thursday that Stein be discharged for using his site to call Obama “the domestic enemy”. The Marine’s page also displayed a “Jackass” movie poster with Obama’s face and comments he posted in which he said he would not follow some orders from Obama.
Service members are banned from engaging in political speech or activities while representing the military. At issue is whether Sgt. Stein was speaking as a citizen or as an official representative of the US military. His attorneys argue he was acting as a private citizen when posting on the Facebook page, and say the Marine Corps is violating his First Amendment rights by prosecuting him for his comments.
Representative Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine reservist, sent a letter to the Marines Tuesday urging them to drop the case against Stein. “If there is anything good to come out of this, it’s the fact that the Marines realize the guidelines need to be updated,” Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said in an e-mail. “It’s just too bad it took all of this to get there.”
Lawrence Korb, a Navy veteran and former assistant secretary of Defense said service members complaining about the government is nothing new. “We’re in a new world, and the military has to adapt to it,” Korb said. “Previously if you said something like that, people would just tell you to shut up.” As employees in the private sector are learning, social networks like Twitter and Facebook have changed the scene as grumblings are often broadcast and rebroadcast for the world to see.
Korb said new military recruits must understand that members of the military give up some rights, including free speech, in the service of their country. “As part of the people coming into the service, we have to make it clear that this social media is out there and therefore you have to be held accountable —it’s just as if you wrote an op-ed,” Korb said. “They need to explain to these people, now that you’re in the military, you can’t use social networks the way you used to.”
The case has created an odd alliance between the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative U.S. Justice Foundation with both taking up Stein’s case. Stein filed a lawsuit in federal court this week to try and stop his discharge proceedings. A federal judge ruled the hearing could proceed.
Stein wrote on his Facebook page Friday: “On to the next fight.”
The review board recommended that Stein receive an “other than honorable” discharge, which would include a loss of benefits and reduction in rank. The commanding general at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, where Stein is based, will make the final decision.
At his hearing Thursday, military prosecutors said Stein called Obama a “domestic enemy” and said he would not follow orders from the president. Stein’s defense is that he clarified he was speaking of not following unlawful orders. An oft misunderstood feature of military code is what personnel swear to. They do not swear to obey all orders but rather “lawful” orders.
The main issue in the case is whether Stein was acting as a representative of the Marines on his Facebook page, or as a private citizen. After his page was first flagged by superiors in 2010, Stein added a disclaimer stating; “We do not represent, and are in no way affiliated with the military, or United States Armed Forces.”
Representative Hunter, who wrote that Stein should not be discharged for an opinion shared by the majority of Marines, said that Stein was acting as a private citizen “in a forum that encourages civil interaction between family, friends and acquaintances. He did not appear to be representing the Marines Corps,” Hunter said in his letter to the Marines, “or creating the illusion that he was speaking in some official capacity.”
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