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 orders from the commander in chief, President Barack Obama.
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While Stein softened his statement to say he wouldn't follow "unlawful orders," military observers say he may have gone too far.
The Marine Corps is now looking into whether he violated the military's rules prohibiting political statements by those in uniform and broke its guidelines on what troops can and cannot say on social media. Stein said his views are constitutionally protected.
While troops have always expressed their views in private, Stein's case highlights the potential for their opinions to go viral as tech-savvy service members post personal details, videos and pictures that can hurt the military's image at home and abroad.
"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, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"Good order and discipline require the military maintain respect for the chain of command," Glazier said. "That includes prohibiting speech critical of the senior officers in that chain of command — up to and including the commander in chief."
Strict Pentagon rules
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, including the defense secretary or the president.
In January, an Army reservist wearing camouflaged fatigues got into trouble for taking the stage during a rally in Iowa with Republican presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul.
Stein was first cautioned by his superiors at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, in 2010 after he launched his Facebook page, criticizing Obama's health care overhaul. Stein volunteered to take down the page while he reviewed the rules at the request of his superiors.
He said he determined he was not in violation and relaunched the page under the shortened account name Armed Forces Tea Party. Last week, he said his superiors told him he couldn't use social media sites on government computers after he posted the message stating he would not follow unlawful orders of the president.
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.
Another Marine alerted his command about the statement, Stein said.
Marine: Within my rights
Stein said he respects the office of the president, but he does not agree with Obama's policies. He said he is within his rights to speak up.
"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 what's going on in government.
"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 as long as they do not give the impression he is speaking 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.
Stein appears in a dress shirt and tie on his Facebook page but he also describes himself as "a conservative blogger, speaker, the founder of the Armed Forces Tea Party and active-duty, eight-year Marine Corps veteran."
Marine Sgt. Jerret Wright, who liked Stein's page, said Stein "probably skirted the line a little bit" with his latest message about not following Obama's orders, but his boldness in expressing his views 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 say it's not that simple. They say it is bad form to lash out at the commander in chief. Experts also say his Facebook postings appear to link his professional standing with his political views.
They also 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.
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