Marine’s Facebook page tests military rules

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SAN DIEGO — Marine Sgt. Gary Stein first started a Facebook page called Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots to encourage service members to exercise their free speech rights. Then he declared that he wouldn’t follow “unlawful” orders from the commander in chief, President Barack Obama.

The Marine Corps is determining if he violated the military’s rules prohibiting political statements by those in uniform and broke guidelines regarding social media. Stein said his views are constitutionally protected.

“I think that it’s been pretty well established for a long time that freedom of speech is one area in which people do surrender some of their basic rights in entering the armed forces,” said former Navy officer David Glazier. “Good order and discipline require the military maintain respect for the chain of command. That includes prohibiting speech critical of the senior officers in that chain of command — up to and including the commander in chief.”

According to Pentagon directives, military personnel in uniform can’t sponsor a political club; participate in any TV or radio program or group discussion that advocates for or against a political party, candidate or cause; or speak at any event promoting a political movement. Commissioned officers also may not use contemptuous words against senior officials.

Last week, Stein said his superiors told him he couldn’t use social media sites on government computers after he posted the message.

Stein said his statement was part of an online debate about NATO allowing U.S. troops to be tried for the Quran burnings in Afghanistan. In that context, he said, he was stating that he would not follow orders from the president if those orders included detaining U.S. citizens, disarming them or doing anything else that he believes would violate their constitutional rights. Stein said he respects the office of the president, but he does not agree with Obama’s policies.

“Just because I’m a Marine doesn’t mean I don’t have free speech or can’t say my personal opinion about the president or other public official just like anybody else,” Stein said. “The Constitution trumps everything else.”

Stein said it’s positive when service members are well-versed on the Constitution and current events.

“When we know what we’re fighting for, we fight harder,” he said.

The Marine Corps said Stein is allowed to express his personal opinions, but not in his official capacity as a Marine. Spokesman Maj. Michael Armistead said the Corps is taking a closer look to ensure Stein has not crossed that line.

“At this time, he has not been asked to take down the statement on his page,” he said.

Marine Sgt. Jerret Wright, who liked Stein’s page, said Stein “probably skirted the line a little bit” with his latest message, but his boldness has been refreshing in a community that often feels silenced.

“People assume that we’re zombies with an on-and-off switch, and that we listen to orders and do nothing else,” Wright said.

Military observers point out that the Pentagon policy is necessary in preventing political and religious debates that could divide a unit and disrupt the strong working relationship that is needed to carry out missions, Glazier said.

“There are plenty of examples in the world of militaries heavily involved in influencing political events that have shown that is not conducive to civilian rule of law,” he said.

Printed on Thursday, March 8, 2012 as: Marine's Facebook page starts debate on military free speech