limits of free speech

As I’ve said before, I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist. I’ve defended racist speech, hateful speech, misogynistic speech, ugly speech of every sort. I may not like it, but I defend a person’s right to say it. Most of my friends know this, so I routinely get email from folks with links to free speech issues.

Today I received a few emails referring to the Gary Stein case, one of which linked to a Gawker post that included this cartoon:

The case involves 26 year old Marine Corps Sergeant Gary Stein, a nine-year veteran. Stein made several disparaging remarks about President Obama on his Facebook page. He called the president “a coward,” he referred to him as an “economic and religious enemy,” he vowed he would never salute him and stated he wouldn’t follow his orders (which he later amended to say he wouldn’t follow “illegal orders”).

I completely support Stein’s right to have those opinions and to voice them as a private citizen. But here’s the problem. He’s not a private citizen. He’s a member of the United States Marines and however much he hates it, Barack Obama is his Commander in Chief. As a Marine, Sgt. Stein’s behavior is ruled by the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, not by the laws that pertain to ordinary citizens. Article 134 of the UCMJ says this:

[A]ll disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special, or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court.

Insulting the Commander in Chief has always been considered conduct that brings ‘discredit upon the armed forces’ and detrimental to the ‘good order and discipline of the armed forces.’ Sgt. Stein could have been subject to a court-martial and, if found guilty, given a dishonorable discharge. Instead, he was given an administrative hearing and a three judge panel recommended he be given an administrative discharge.

I think that’s appropriate. Stein had served long enough to be familiar with the rules of conduct. He should have known better. It’s not uncommon for military personnel to talk trash about their superiors (hell, it’s almost mandatory), but it’s one thing to talk trash with your buddies in private and it’s altogether another thing to post comments on public social media.

The Gawker piece concludes: “However outraged you would have been had an Iraq war veteran Marine been dismissed for saying something bad about George W. Bush on Facebook, that’s how outraged you should be now.” I agree with that completely. When Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Butler called President Bush “contemptible and sleazy” and suggested the invasion of Iraq took place because the “economy was sliding into the usual Republican pits and he needed something on which to hang his presidency” (sentiments I happen to agree with), I believe the Air Force did the right thing in booting his ass out. Active duty military personnel DO NOT insult the Commander in Chief, no matter how passionately they may dislike him.

One of the reasons I always say I’m close to being a free speech absolutist is because there are situations like this. Being a member of the military carries some extra burdens, one of which is you can’t always speak your mind.

No–that’s not true. You can still speak your mind. You just have to accept the consequences. For Gary Stein, that meant being discharged from the Marine Corps.

But don’t feel too badly for him. His disrespect for the Commander in Chief may have ended his military career, but it’s kickstarted his career as a radio talk show host. Is anybody surprised to learn Citizen Gary Stein has been given a radio show?

1 thought on “limits of free speech

  1. This kind of thing is becoming more and more prevalent. There was a case here last week of someone being prosecuted for tweeting the name of the victim in a high profile rape case, a prosecution I support. On the other hand I was one of 10’s of 1000’s who broke a court order banning the publication of the name of sports star in a privacy case which I felt was an unfair and ultimately pointless restriction of freedom of speech. Contempt of court is a serious business and I’m sure many were unwittingly repeating gossip heard in the pub without thought to the potential consequences.

    I’ve tried to impress upon my kids the need to try and be thoughtful about FB posts and the like. It’s widely understood that universities and potential employers do searches to weed out unsuitable candidates and sometimes ‘jokey’ or ironic posts don’t come across like that. Hell, I’ve even had to warn my parents about things they’ve written online. Certainly I’ve been caught out, embarrassed if not prosecuted, by some things I’ve written.

    Social media has given ordinary people enormous freedom and power to express their opinions and I applaud that. But the other side is that ordinary people now have to take the consequences when they publish those views online and that’s a big imposition. Traditional means of publishing give enough time for reflection, opinion pieces are run past editors and lawyers for their views. Social media’s immediacy feels gossipy and inconsequential but those words stay there forever. It’s a difficult shift for non-professional writers to come to terms with. I feel new paradigms of behaviour are in order, both for individuals and institutions. However, that will take time to sort out.

    I don’t know the particulars of the Sgt. Stein case, only what I’ve read here, but it seems to me that rank must play a role in deciding punishment. Insubordination is a serious matter that needs to be dealt with but a Sgt. isn’t a Lt Col. and I instinctively feel that punishment should reflect that.


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