Published April 15, 2010
A Camp Pendleton Marine whose Facebook posts ignited a debate about whether active duty troops are allowed to criticize the president of the United States says he intends to keep posting his views on the Web.
Sgt. Gary Stein created the Facebook group "Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots" three weeks ago as a way to voice his opposition to President Obama's health care overhaul. On Tuesday, prior to a cable TV interview, superior officers asked the 24-year-old Marine to review the Department of Defense directives on political activities. Stein then removed the Facebook group, only to see it revived by a civilian member of a local Tea Party group hours later.
According to Department of Defense directives, military personnel are prohibited from sponsoring a political club, writing anything that solicits votes for a political cause or speaking at any event that promotes a political movement.
Stein says he respects Obama and will follow any order handed down by his commander in chief, but he plans to continue to voice his opinion on Facebook. He said he has contacted an attorney who told him he has committed no wrongdoing.
"I'm speaking as Gary Stein, not as Sgt. Gary Stein," he told FoxNews.com. "I just want to give my daughter the greatest country that we can, just like my parents gave me. I want her to inherit the America I know we can be."
Stein, who lives in Temecula, Calif., with his wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter, said he will still contribute to the Facebook group, but will do so in a more controlled fashion.
"I'm not going to push it," he said. "I'm going to think a lot more before I post and not go off on wild tangents like I did before."
Stein's initial posts to the group have been removed, and he declined to indicate exactly what he posted that drew the attention of his superiors. But he insisted he did not comment on military matters.
"It wasn't meant to be a group to speak out against the government or against the president," he said. "I respect the president. I will follow his orders."
He said he removed the page voluntarily after realizing it "had become not what I intended it for" -- to be an open forum for military members who affiliate themselves with the Tea Party movement.
News of Stein's experience ignited a polarized debate online, particularly on the very Facebook page he created and later removed.
Staff Sgt. Victor Rodriguez, who, like Stein, is a military meteorologist and at one point was a member of the Facebook group, told FoxNews.com he and many of his associates were disappointed with the Marine's actions.
"Though I do not speak for them, they have expressed their concern with Stein's violation of military policy," Rodriguez wrote FoxNews.com. "I believe in order to maintain a cohesive unit, military members need to remain apolitical when it comes to the public.
"Yes, we all have our views, and we discuss them amongst one another. However, we understand that unit cohesion is a large part of our occupation and sending the enemy mixed signals about our policies and support for those policies can be an added benefit to them for propaganda purposes."
Rodriguez continued, "With that being said, I am sure Sgt. Stein is not a bad Marine, and that it was just a misunderstanding concerning the articles of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and associated articles pertaining to political activism."
But Joseph E. Torres, who said he spent 11 years as a Marine, disagreed with Rodriguez's assessment.
"It's really sad that Marines can't speak out on issues not dealing with Military Op's," Torres wrote on Facebook. "Like we don't have a say in the government we serve. You know they're not going to promote him if he ever get on the list."
The San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that it sent a letter to Camp Pendleton's commanding officer urging the Marine Corps to protect Stein's right to freedom of speech.
"While the Corps has indicated through a spokesperson that it 'is not looking to file charges,' Sgt. Stein’s speech has nonetheless been chilled," the statement read. "The ACLU strongly supports the First Amendment rights of servicemembers to discuss and critique the government’s policies and conduct. Speech on issues of social and political concern is recognized by the courts, including military courts, as 'the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.'"
Former Marine Corps attorney Patrick Callahan told the San Diego Union-Tribune that military members do surrender some free speech rights when they don a uniform.
"There are restrictions on time, place and manner," he told the paper. "For instance, service members can't go to political rallies in uniform. The issue becomes whether somebody is doing it in their professional capacity."
Camp Pendleton spokeswoman Maj. Gabrielle Chapin said the Marine Corps is not considering filing charges against Stein.
"Marines take care of Marines," she wrote in an e-mail to FoxNews.com. "Sergeant Stein's supervisor was concerned that his activities with the Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots could give the appearance or impression that the Marine Corps is endorsing the group and its messages."
She said Stein was not disciplined, and he received the same "one-on-one mentorship and guidance" provided to all Marines.
Stein, who has another child on the way, said he has grown from the experience and intends to keep posting messages he deems appropriate.
"I'm going to do make sure I'm doing it the right way, I'm going to lead by example," he said. "I'm glad my voice can be heard. I wish everyone's voice can be heard the way mine is right now."