Marine Sgt. Gary Stein fights losing battle over free speech rights

Sgt. Gary Stein violated a long-standing military policy and tradition, showing disrespect for the office of the President and Commander in Chief. Photo: Facebook page

CHICAGO, April 9, 2012 — A United States Marine Corps Administrative Separation Board recommended that Sgt. Gary Stein face a less than honorable discharge for criticizing President Obama on Facebook. 

On his Armed Forces Tea Party page, Sgt. Stein criticized the president as a domestic enemy, claimed he would not follow certain orders issued by the president, and superimposed the face of the president on a “Jack-Ass” movie poster. 

At last count Sgt. Stein had 27,000 followers on Facebook. 

There is a long-standing policy and tradition in the military of respecting rank. You do not have to respect the person holding the rank, but you must respect the rank they hold.

This includes the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, the President. 

A troop simply does not publicly criticize higher-ranking figures, especially in the media, or now, social media. It has the potential to disrupt good military discipline and order. You learn and are indoctrinated in this very early in your military career.    

Sgt. Gary Stein violated that tradition and policy, along with Department of Defense rules and articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing political activities. A federal judge twice upheld the discharge but has agreed to hear arguments by Stein’s attorneys on issues of freedom of speech and whether the Administration Separation Board is unjust and denies due process. 

Sgt. Gary Stein, a nine-year veteran of the Marine Corps, knew exactly what he was doing when he made criticisms on his Facebook page, “Armed Forces Tea Party.” 

When you join the military or other government service, you give up certain rights, including freedom of speech and expression. You are not allowed to advocate for certain issues or criticize policies or personnel in a public forum. 

Soldiers have been complaining about military and civilian leadership since the times of the Roman Legions. Usually they are ignored or told to put a sock in it. If complainers persist, especially if they develop a following, there are consequences. 

The military and politics recruit from the same gene pool, the human race. There are poor, uninformed, or even dangerous leaders in the military and civilian worlds. In time they are discovered and weeded out, fired or voted out of office. 

Once again, the standard is not respect for the person, but respect for the rank or office held. 

Sgt. Gary Stein is not stupid. He knew full well he could have sought guidance from above over his Facebook page and whatever political activities he participated in through his “Armed Forces Tea Party.

He ignored warnings from his superiors over his postings. He was warned. Sgt. Stein knew exactly what he was doing and that it was improper. He did it anyway. 

Sgt. Gary Stein showed personal courage for using his name and face to offer his criticisms. Sometimes courage is not appropriate or smart. In the case of Sgt. Stein, it is was not courage that got him in trouble. It was daring.

He challenged the military by continuing his activities. 

By criticizing and insulting President Obama, he criticized and insulted the office of the President of the United States. He criticized and insulted the rank of the Commander and Chief of the Armed forces. 

His conduct would be deemed improper if he publicly criticized or insulted the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or even his commanding officer. 

Tea Party Constitution thumpers and critics of the president are defending Sgt. Stein’s free speech rights, rights he knowingly gave up when he joined, stayed in, and rose through the ranks in the Marine Corps. 

Sgt. Stein knew what he was doing could result in discipline. His superiors warned him. He persisted in his misconduct. He was aware of the consequences of his actions. 

This will not be the last we hear of Sgt. Gary Stein. He may play a role in the political discussion as a civilian, if the military upholds his discharge. Civilian Gary Stein could be unleashed as a pundit. He will be free to criticize anyone he wants, including the president or his beloved Marine Corps. 

Others in the military more famous, decorated, and of much higher rank have suffered the consequences of their expressions and speech. General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of command for his disrespect of the president in letters he wrote to Congress during the Korean War.

General George S. Patton’s career suffered setbacks due to statements he made during and immediately after World War II. 

More recently, General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of command in Afghanistan over comments he and his staff made to a freelance reporter that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. General McChrystal took the high road: 

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard. I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome. 

Maybe Sgt. Gary Stein should have taken the honorable road instead of fighting a losing battle. He could have apologized and disappeared into the Marine Corps bureaucracy until the controversy died down. Instead he decided to fight a losing battle, paying a big price for his celebrity. 

Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance writer and photographer, cook, and raconteur.  He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys.  His opinions are his and his alone. 

pvbella@gmail.com 

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Peter Bella

Peter Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance photographer, freelance writer, budding videographer, and passionate cook.  He aims to be the sharp stick that pokes and annoys.  The Middle Class Guy is a political column written from a center-right point of view.  While concentrating mainly on politics he will stray into culture, entertainment, sports, cooking, and humor from time to time, along with Memories of things Pabst.  All from a middle class perspective.

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