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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gary Stein: Why We Can't Ignore His Story

Marine SGT Gary Stein is set to be discharged "other than honorably" from the Marine Corps. A long time affiliate of the Tea Party and Obama critic, Stein posted on his facebook page recently that he would refuse to follow any unlawful order given by the President.

This should be a non issue from the start, since all military members swear upon entrance to the service that they will uphold and defend the Constitution and protect the United States from enemies, both foreign and domestic. They do not pledge their allegiance to the Commander in Chief, but rather the nation as a whole. While it is generally not an acceptable practice for soldiers - particularly while in uniform - to speak in such a way as to be insulting to the office of the President, military members are afforded the right to speak in opposition to political ideas, parties and officials provided they do so in a respectful manner. Soldiers are also not permitted to campaign for candidates or to even appear at rallies while in uniform to avoid giving the impression that the military as a whole supports a particular candidate or party.

Gary Stein, by posting his comment on a Facebook page, was well within his rights. He did not accuse President Obama of giving an unlawful order, nor did he suggest that one was pending. He did not address the President with any disrespect, rather he simply repeated the oath he swore in with, saying that if an unlawful order was given his responsibility was to the Constitution and the United States rather than to the President. He did not stand up at a political rally in uniform, demanding that other soldiers disregard the President. He simply sat at his computer in the comfort of his own home - perhaps even in his pajamas - and exercised his First Amendment right to speak his mind.

The reason this is important is that the First Amendment is only superficially about free speech. Sure it SAYS that Congress shall not abridge the citizen's right to free speech, but the meaning is much more subversive. What the First Amendment protects in regards to speech is dissent, and speech that may be judged as offensive. There is no need for the government to protect the individuals's right to freely praise elected officials or to say things that everyone else agrees with, because no one would ever try to restrict that kind of speech. Protection is only necessary when it is the kind of speech that someone might want to stop. The reality is that the First Amendment guarantees Gary Stein's right to suggest that the President is capable of issuing an unlawful order, whether he is serving in the military or not, whether the President likes it or not.

But this is bigger than Gary Stein. This is bigger than the Marines. This is a test case to see just how much intrusion into the personal lives of military members the general public will accept.  Four years ago, while stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, I met a soldier who had received an Article 15 (the same administrative punishment that is given to soldiers who receive DUI's) for owning an Obama bobble head. He was told that it was considered "disrespectful to the President." However, in the years leading up to Obama's election, soldiers who openly opposed George W. Bush were given a much wider berth.

The reality is that if the military allows Gary Stein's dismissal over this, they will have opened a door that will be very difficult to close again. Where will it stop? How much free speech is too much for the military to have? Will it be considered "disrespectful" if active duty soldiers donate money to candidates who are running against the incumbent Commander in Chief? What if they have the audacity to vote against a sitting Commander in Chief?

Soldiers are in a unique position, in that they are not permitted to leave their positions over a disagreement with the boss. The soldier who fundamentally disagrees with the President may be asked to take a bullet for him, and he does not have the freedom to turn down the job. The soldier knows that, and he agrees to that when he signs his first contract and takes that first oath. Would you also take away his right to help bring about change in the very administration that asks more of him than of any other citizen?

We should all be fighting for Gary Stein, because if his right to speak freely can be taken, so can the rights of all military members. If the rights of military members can be taken, then so can the rights of all government workers. And after the government workers, the general population.

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