SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A federal judge refused on Wednesday to block disciplinary action against a Marine who criticized President Barack Obama on Facebook and called him a “domestic enemy” in a posting to an internal military network.
Marine Sergeant Gary Stein, 26, a meteorologist stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, filed suit on Tuesday, saying the Marine Corps was violating his right to free speech. A Southern California congressman has rallied to his defense.
The Marines have said they initiated discharge proceedings against Stein after he posted political statements about Obama on a Facebook page he runs called the “Armed Forces Tea Party.”
Military experts have said that by associating the name of his Facebook page with the Armed Forces, Stein was essentially putting himself in the position of publicly expressing his personal political opinions while in uniform, which Defense Department rules prohibit.
But at a hearing on the lawsuit in San Diego, District Judge Marilyn Huff said he also came under scrutiny for anti-Obama comments he posted to the military’s internal network for meteorological and oceanographic information.
Huff said the online message posted by Stein read: “As an active-duty Marine, I have sworn to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Obama is the economic enemy, the religious enemy, the domestic enemy.”
Stein faces possible discharge on “other than honorable” conditions in administrative proceedings set to begin Thursday morning at Pendleton.
Stein initially ran into trouble for comments he made on his Facebook page in an online debate over the punishment faced by NATO and U.S. military personnel over burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan.
The remarks at issue have since been removed from Facebook. But in an account he gave the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, Stein paraphrased himself as stating: “I say screw Obama. I will not follow orders given by him to me.”
Stein said he later clarified online that he meant he would not follow “unlawful orders” from the president, the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces.
U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican former Marine whose district encompasses an area near Camp Pendleton, has urged the Marine Corps to let Stein at least complete the less than four months left in his enlistment.
Stein ran afoul of the Marine Corps once before, in 2010, for expressing his opinion as a member of the armed forces rather than as a civilian on the same Facebook page. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union spoke up for him, and the group’s local attorney is among those who have signed the lawsuit complaint on his Facebook page.
(Additional reporting and writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Simao)