ACLU Raises Concerns about Tea Party Marine’s Ability to Speak Out
Asserting the rights of servicemembers to comment freely on issues of public concern, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties today sent a letter to Camp Pendleton’s commanding officer urging the Marine Corps to ensure that a censored sergeant maintains the full measure of his constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.
Based on reports in today’s San Diego Union-Tribune, Sergeant Gary Stein was summoned back to Camp Pendleton as he prepared to give an interview to a television station about his Facebook page, “Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots.” The article said that the sergeant was unable to give the interview, chose to remove his posted Facebook page, and was told about the “Pentagon’s directive on political activities.” While the Corps has indicated through a spokesperson that it “is not looking to file charges,” Sgt. Stein’s speech has nonetheless been chilled.
The ACLU strongly supports the First Amendment rights of servicemembers to discuss and critique the government’s policies and conduct. Speech on issues of social and political concern is recognized by the courts, including military courts, as “the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.” (United States v. Wilcox, 2008)
The Union-Tribune article did not detail the full contents of Sergeant Stein’s speech, but the military itself has recognized the right of servicemembers to express opinions on matters of public—and personal—concern. Military courts have held that servicemembers have a right to voice their views “so long as it does not impact on discipline, morale, esprit de corps, and civilian supremacy.” (United States v. Brown, 1996)
Simply by identifying himself as a Marine in his posts and in interviews is not sufficient to censor his speech. According to the court’s decision in Wilcox, the First Amendment prohibits a conviction based on the message expressed by a servicemember when there is no evidence that the communication affects the military’s mission or presents a “clear danger to loyalty, discipline, mission or morale of the troops.”
The ACLU is not currently representing Sgt. Stein, but chose to write the letter to express its concerns about the potential censorship of his speech based on the facts as reported.