Marine to argue free-speech case at hearing

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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A Marine facing dismissal for running a Facebook page criticizing the Obama administration is backed now by a team of lawyers and federal congressmen as he fights to stay in the military and test its age-old policy of limiting the free speech of service members.

Sgt. Gary Stein will appear before a military board at Camp Pendleton on Thursday to argue his case.

The 26-year-old Marine has been rallying for support since he was notified last month that the military was moving to discharge him after determining he was in violation of the Pentagon policy barring service members from engaging in political activities.

Sgt. Stein’s lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union say his views are protected by the First Amendment.

“The military may be different from the civilian world, but it’s not exempt from the First Amendment,” said David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Sgt. Stein didn’t say anything for which the Marine Corps has any right to punish him. He did not threaten order or discipline or take positions that anyone would attribute to the Corps. Indeed, the Corps is threatening loyalty and morale by persecuting a good Marine for exercising his free-speech rights.”

Sgt. Stein, a nine-year member of the Marine Corps, says he started a Facebook page called Armed Forces Tea Party to encourage fellow service members to exercise their free-speech rights.

The Marine Corps has said that it decided to take administrative action after Sgt. Stein declared on Facebook that he would not follow unlawful orders from Obama.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine, wrote a letter to Sgt. Stein’s commanding officer stating the sergeant should not face dismissal for an opinion shared by “a majority of Marines.” Rep. Darrell E.  Issa, California Republican, also has expressed support for Sgt. Stein.

Sgt. Stein said his statement about Obama was part of an online debate about NATO allowing U.S. troops to be tried for the Koran burnings in Afghanistan. In that context, he said, he was stating that he would not follow orders from the president if those orders included detaining U.S. citizens, disarming them or doing anything else that he believes would violate their constitutional rights.

The military has had a policy since the Civil War limiting the free speech of service members, including criticizing the commander in chief. Military law experts have said he may have crossed the line.

According to Pentagon directives, military personnel in uniform cannot sponsor a political club; participate in any TV or radio program or group discussion that advocates for or against a political party, candidate or cause; or speak at any event promoting a political movement. Commissioned officers also may not use contemptuous words against senior officials, including the defense secretary or the president.

Sgt. Stein said that, in addition to being discharged, he would have his rank reduced to lance corporal if he is proved to be in violation. He said he was removed from his job at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego on Wednesday and given a desk job with no access to computers.

Sgt. Stein’s lawyers asked a federal judge Wednesday to impose an injunction to block the military’s discharge hearing so they could have more time to prepare their case.

The judge denied the request.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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