Fort Bragg Atheists Test Military Politicking Rules

Some may have assumed that with a Democratic President (and the stereotype that the US military leans Republican/conservative), most of those testing the limits of permissible political activities or commentary would be “right wing” or conservatives.

They would be wrong.

The blog for the Rock Beyond Belief event organized by Justin Griffith at Fort Bragg recently posted an article about North Carolina’s Amendment 1, which would modify the NC State Constitution to say the only domestic legal union in the state is a marriage between one man and one woman.  The Amendment is currently supported by Franklin Graham, among others, who was also the inspiration behind Rock the Fort and Griffith’s counter-event.  (The Amendment currently has a majority of support.)

While the article bore the stylistic hallmarks of Griffith’s blog — for which he has been the sole author — the name on the by-line is “Priscilla,” who appears to be a part of the local Fort Bragg atheist group.  That’s smart, because the DoD rules on political activities (DoDD 1344.10) say a member of the military who is on active duty may not publish

partisan political articles…signed or written by the member that solicits votes for or against…a partisan political…cause.

As Amendment 1 is clearly a political cause, and the article explicitly solicits votes against the amendment, it would be inappropriate for a member of the US military to sign his name to such an article.

Similarly, beyond the call to vote against the amendment, the article is largely a solicitation of money to support an effort to oppose it.  Again, the DoD rules say a member of the military may not

participate in partisan political fundraising activities…without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.

That last part means troops can’t do it even if they’re out of uniform or free from perception of endorsement, which are common exceptions in other cases.  In other words, US troops can never participate in political fundraising (though they can donate).  So its smart that an active duty soldier isn’t the primary author of the article.

Obviously, the authors of the piece put some effort into trying to follow the restrictions on political activities by US servicemembers. As noted with US Marine Sgt Gary Stein, however, that’s not always easy.  He, too, said he thought he was following the rules — and he even asked for clarification.  Some of those difficulties show up in the post at Griffith’s blog, as well.  For example, the post says:

Unfortunately, many soldiers stationed here at Fort Bragg…cannot vote on this…because they are not registered to vote here. However, we are finding other ways to get involved. We’ve donated what we could to this cause but also went out into their community to let others know about it…This effort paid off immediately. Four local businesses pledged major support.

There was a slip in the careful editing, with “they” inadvertently becoming “we.”  The first person “we” seems to point to the antecedent soldiers, which would indicate a member of the military did write the article (not permissible), donated (permissible), and advocated/fundraised in the community for the political cause (not permissible).

Later, the authors again indicate they put thought into the rules when they said

Obviously, not wearing their uniforms, they are also planning on joining over 1,000 marchers…in Raleigh to take the message to the door step of City Hall.

Leaving their uniforms at home is an obvious nod to the rules (and a prior “scandal”).  But is that all the rules say?  Take a look:

A member of the Armed Forces on active duty shall not…march or ride in a partisan political parade [or] attend partisan political events as an official representative of the Armed Forces…

That’s a little murkier.  Are they really “marching,” or is it a “political event” that they’re not “officially” attending (meaning they can attend “unofficially”)?  What’s the intent of the regulation?  That’s a good question, too, since the DoD rules have a dreaded catch-all:

Activities not expressly prohibited may be contrary to the spirit and intent of this Directive. Any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense…or any component of these Departments with a partisan political activity or is otherwise contrary to the spirit and intention of this Directive shall be avoided.

That could bode poorly for the movement, since the Fort Bragg atheists are actively soliciting military support for the political activity, and the Army’s Fort Bragg is clearly a DoD component.  Still, there’s room for interpretation.

Of course, much of the regulation is open to interpretation and a reading of intent.  Military members can put bumper stickers on their car, but not political signs.  There aren’t any explicit restrictions on the content of bumper stickers, nor a restriction on political signs in a military member’s front yard — so long as they’re not on a military base.  Back to the social media thing — what about political “signs” on a website/Facebook page?

On one hand the military wants its troops to exercise their “obligations of citizenship;” on the other hand, partisan activities are “traditionally” restricted.  The DoD policy on political activities is prefaced by the statement

It is DoD policy to encourage members of the Armed Forces…to carry out the obligations of citizenship. In keeping with the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity…the following policy shall apply…

Whether its Ron Paul’s rally, a Tea Party Facebook page, or NC Amendment 1, there are explicit and implicit (and not so implicit) rules governing troops’ activity.  Is it always an easy answer?  Nope.

Again, the point here is not to indict any particular person or group. In this case, it certainly seems the Fort Bragg atheists are trying to follow the rules.  As noted previously, however, many seemed to think the rules about military politicking were “obvious.”  They summarily dismissed the controversy around US Marine Sgt Stein, implying he was some one-off right wing anti-Obama whacko.  (To further make the point, all of these quotes came from blogs and Facebook posts run/owned by military members — back to Stein’s issue of social media.)  The rules may not be so obvious — and their application knows no political party.

The rules aren’t always clear, and the social media aspect has yet to be fully addressed.  One can try to follow the rules in good faith, but in the absence of clear direction, troops face the decision to abstain from everything (and risk abandoning otherwise permissible duties of citizenship) or make the best decision they can and soldier on (and risk overstepping the rules — which could result in discharge).

In case you were curious, US troops are often trained to make the best decision they can with what little information they have…

2 comments

  • Not one to come to the defense of the folks related to RBB, I do feel there needs to be a little bit of clarification on the subject.

    Amendment 1, actually known ad SB 514, was not a partisan effort and would not be considered politicking on the partisan side of the issue. The amendment was set forth to PUBLIC referendum as is required to change the state constitution. The potential effects and unintended consequences of the vague wording in the amendment actually may have some consequences for members of the military in NC, whether they are actually citizens of the state or not. As military members stationed in NC, they are subject to the constitution of the state in which they live.

    Not to debate the merits or lack their of, of the not ratified amendment, it would not be seen as a political issue for the military as it was up for public vote in order to be added to the amendment. Many members of both the two major political parties, senior church leaders, business leaders, and other respected leaders in the state came out AGAINST the amendment. All this aside, unless a member of the military represented themselves as both a member of the military AND by taking that representation as an official stance of the military in a partisan manner, there was nothing done wrong. Again, as this had already been sent forth by the politicians to be voted upon by the public, the lead up to the vote on May 8th would not have been a partisan political act.

    As stated earlier, I have no desire to defend the aforementioned group. I have my reservations for professional reasons just as you do and have spoken about on many an occasion. I have written my share against amendment 1, but made pains to tread very carefully. I would think that as one who has sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States that it is within reason to speak against what may be perceived as a case of constitutional bigotry at the state level. The time for debate over the amendment has passed and for the foreseeable future it will be the law of the land until it is either voted out again by the public or deemed unconstitutional at the federal level.

    I may not have the same beliefs as you do, but I have agreed with quite a bit you have written regarding the professional conduct and how it should be represented to the public, including through social networking. Our profession requires by regulation we do not misrepresent our authority nor our position as that of our employer, something that has been sadly lacking in the last few years as I see more and more service members interpreting their right more in the vain as civilians with free speech than service members who are charged with protecting it.

  • @No Kool Aid Zone
    Whether or not advocating for Amendment 1 was “partisan” and therefore prohibited is arguably an(other) ambiguity in the regulation.

    Incidentally, while your point is understood, military members are subject to many things in the states in which they reside, but that subjection does not absolve them of the restriction on advocating for political causes.

    unless a member of the military represented themselves as both a member of the military AND by taking that representation as an official stance of the military in a partisan manner, there was nothing done wrong

    And that may be a major failing. The Fort Bragg atheists made a point of saying their military group was organizing the protest. Military members so actively engaged in political protest may be a bridge too far for the regs.

    it is within reason to speak against what may be perceived as a case of constitutional bigotry at the state level

    Speaking about issues is not only permissible but generally encouraged. Political advocacy, on the other hand, may be limited, depending on how the regs are read and applied.

    Your points are well made.

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