- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SAN DIEGO Marine Sgt. Gary Stein 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 President Obama.

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

The Marine Corps is now looking into whether he violated the military’s rules prohibiting political statements by those in uniform and broke its guidelines on what troops can say on social media.

While troops have always expressed their views in private, Sgt. Stein’s case highlights the potential for their opinions to go global as tech-savvy service members post personal details, videos and pictures that can hurt the military’s image at home and abroad.

“I think that it’s been pretty well established for a long time that freedom of speech is one area in which people do surrender some of their basic rights in entering the armed forces,” said former Navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Good order and discipline require the military maintain respect for the chain of command.”

Pentagon directives bar military personnel in uniform from sponsoring a political club; participating in a media program or group discussion that advocates for or against a political party, candidate or cause; or speaking at an event promoting a political movement. Commissioned officers cannot speak contemptuously of the commander-in-chief. Though he identifies himself as a Marine on his newest page, called Armed Forces Tea Party, Sgt. Stein posted a photo in civilian clothes.

Last week, Sgt. Stein said his superiors told him he couldn’t use social media sites on government computers after he posted the message stating he would not follow unlawful orders of the president.

Sgt. Stein said his statement was part of a debate about trying U.S. troops for the Koran burnings in Afghanistan. In that context, he said, he was stating that he would not follow a president’s orders if they included violating Americans’ constitutional rights.

“Just because I’m a Marine doesn’t mean I don’t have free speech or can’t say my personal opinion about the president or other public official just like anybody else,” Sgt. Stein said. “The Constitution trumps everything else.”