Marine’s Facebook Site Draws Military Attention

Gary Stein has a “Tea Party” Facebook site.  He’s also a US Marine.  In 2010 it attracted the attention of the military, who wanted to make sure he knew the rules.  He reviewed and acknowledged them, and the Facebook page continued, with the military’s awareness.

Recently, however,

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.

While Stein softened his statement to say he wouldn’t follow “unlawful orders,” military observers say he may have gone too far.

“Military observers” is an awkward way of trying to give credibility armchair quarterbacks.  Everyone has an opinion (and you know what they say about opinions), but what matters are the rules and the application of the rules by a military member’s chain of command.

Since “accepting” the ubiquitous nature of social media a few years ago, the military has offered little in the way of explicit guidance or oversight.  (This leads many to write on the internet anonymously, as a recent article on Carroll LeFon, aka Neptunus Lex, noted.)  Notably, the US Marines have published guidance that says Marines should “use their best judgment” in social media, and the Marines do have a “handbook” on “The Social Corps” which offers tips and OPSEC guidance — but isn’t a military regulation itself.

The handbook reminds Marines of the non-social media rule

You can express your political views on public issues or political candidates online, but not as part of an organized communication campaign…

It also reminds commissioned officers they cannot use “contemptuous words” against the President.

Did Sgt Stein’s words cross those lines?  The media articles seem to imply so — but if the reporting didn’t lean that way, there would be no story.  Sgt Stein’s comments were in the context of orders he felt would violate the Constitutional rights of fellow servicemembers — in other words, orders he believed would be unlawful, which he later clarified.

Since it is a given unlawful should not be obeyed, it doesn’t appear there is a story.

The “controversy,” however, does highlight, again, the absence of specific regulatory guidance regarding social media.  For example, the “political activities” regulations (more here), which the news reports imply Sgt Stein may have violated, explicitly permit the expression of personal political opinions and even writing letters to the editor expressing such opinions with name and military rank.  A reasonable observer, then, might conclude a member of the military could do precisely the same thing on the internet.  If there’s a measurable difference, why does the regulation not address it — other than the fact it hasn’t been updated in 4 years?

On the other hand, adding to the confusion is a US Army Public Affairs troop at Fort Benning who said

Talking negatively about supervisors…is punishable under the UCMJ. It’s never appropriate to be disrespectful of superior officers or NCOs, no matter if you’re in the company area or posting to Facebook at your desk at home.

While the PA troop speaks authoritatively, it is debatable whether the actual military response would be that absolute — particularly since no social media policy explicitly addresses the issue.  Notably, while the PA troop represents the “social media” branch of Public Affairs at the post, he is neither a lawyer nor a commander, nor does he cite one to support his statement.

Part of the reason for the vague guidance may be that attempting to “regulate” troops’ interaction with the internet is a Pandora’s Box.  For example, the ACLU is already defending one military member from accusations of censorship; it is not unreasonable to assume they’d take on the cause again if a military member’s otherwise permissible “free speech” were restricted.

Rather than trying to consider every possible caveat of internet use, the military seems content, for now, to address incidents on an individual basis.  As already noted, the Marines have their “handbook” of suggestions.  The Army also has similarly named “Social Media Handbook” that deals largely with “official” military social media sites.  Still, along with cautions about private information, it attempts to address such questions as:

Should Soldiers “follow” those in their command?

To which it offers the clear answer:

This is also left to the discretion of the Army leader.  Ultimately, it depends on how that leader uses social media…

Thus, members of the military are left largely with “general” guidance that might be as broad as “be professional at all times.” While it sounds good in principle, does that mean a soldier who “drops the F-bomb” on his Facebook status is violating the military’s policy on social media?  The military may have a lot of paperwork to do…

The issue gets muddied further when other regulations appear to be in conflict.  As noted above, regulations on political activities explicitly say members of the military can express opinions on policies and candidates, apart from their uniform and duty position.  But General Donald Hoffman, AFMC commander, addressed the topic of social media recently by saying

You need to be professional in all communications and engagements, whether you attach your name and rank or not…Remember, we are representatives of the Air Force whether we are at work or not.

“Professionally,” and as a representative of a service, an Airmen can’t express a political opinion…so the conundrum continues unabated, meaning the military has to address “scandals” individually — and only after they have occurred.

For its part, the Marines have 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.

Given that few people even know what his “official capacity” is, it seems likely he’s met that criteria.

In an interesting twist, the entire Associated Press article is about Stein and politics in the military…until the next to last paragraph [emphasis added]:

They [anonymous military observers] 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.

The article doesn’t address the issue of religion, but in bringing it up fails to clearly communicate the vast difference between politics and religion.

The former is a result of the American democratic process.

The latter is a Constitutionally protected human liberty.

Fortunately, contrary to the out-of-context statement, “military policies” recognize that distinction.

Also at Stars and Stripes.