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Marine's Facebook Comments About Obama Fuel Free Speech Debate

SAN DIEGO - A Camp Pendleton Marine has removed his Facebook page after his comments fueled a free-speech debate about whether troops are allowed to criticize President Barack Obama's policies while serving in the military.

Sgt. Gary Stein said he was asked by his superiors to review the Pentagon's directive on political activities after he criticized Obama's health care reform efforts and then was asked this week to talk about his views on the MSNBC cable TV channel.

Stein said his supervisor told him of his right to an attorney about the matter. He said he decided to close his Facebook page and review his military code obligations. He also contacted private attorneys who told him he had done nothing wrong.

"There's this illusion that when we sign our contract and voluntarily commit, that we lose our right to speak out," Stein told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a story published Wednesday.

The local American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Wednesday that it has sent a letter to Camp Pendleton's commanding officer urging the Marine Corps to protect Stein's right to freedom of speech.

Camp Pendleton spokeswoman Maj. Gabrielle Chapin said the Marine Corps is not considering filing charges and simply wanted him to be aware of the rules so he did not break them.

The Pentagon's directive states that military personnel are not allowed to write anything to solicit votes for a political cause, sponsor a political club or speak before any gathering that promotes a political movement.

"Marines take care of Marines," Chapin wrote in an e-mail. "Sergeant Stein's supervisor was concerned that his activities could give the appearance or impression that the Marine Corps is endorsing the group and its messages."

Stein, 24, a meteorologist for the base's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said it was ire over Obama's health care reform efforts that pushed him to launch the Facebook page, "Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots," three weeks ago.

The tea party is a grass-roots political phenomenon that supports lower taxes and less government involvement. It formed in part as a reaction to public bailouts of the banking and automotive industries. The recently passed health care law is another popular target of the movement.

Stein, who lives in Temecula with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, said he has not commented on military matters on any social-network site.

News of the military's response to his comments sparked an intense debate among Stein's more than 400 Facebook "fans" about whether troops have the right to speak out about the policies of their commander in chief.

Former Marine Corps attorney Patrick Callahan, who now specializes in military law as a civilian lawyer in Texas, said the Pentagon's directive is aimed at preventing military members from appearing as if they are trying to thwart the public process or plot a coup.

"There are restrictions on time, place and manner. For instance, service members can't go to political rallies in uniform," Callahan said.

But he added: "I have never seen the military go after a junior service member for making disparaging remarks about any politician."

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