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Reconciling Free Speech

  • Published
  • By Major Mary Lent
  • 927th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
During this last tumultuous year of politics and shifting social climate, it’s been challenging for many in the military to navigate where our rights as private citizens stop and the obligations of the oaths we swore to uphold start. Add in the perceived anonymity and complex context of social media, and the issue of being accountable for what “someone heard us say” seems that much more complicated. Though nothing could be further from the truth or intent, I’ve often felt that serving my nation somehow restricted my first amendment rights to free speech and expression. The same rights I’m willing to lay down my life to protect for others.

Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice says, “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” Enlisted personnel can be held accountable in the same way under the “good order and discipline” clause of Article 134.

I suppose the sticking point is the legal definition of the word “contemptuous,” although officers also fall under Article 134 for other actions that might be considered prejudicial to those same causes. I am no lawyer, but I know what a court martial is and my opinion on anything isn’t so important as to risk that. While it’s always unprofessional to disparage your boss, military or civilian, where does disagreement cross into contempt?

If I share an article on Facebook that paints any of those offices in a negative light, is that contemptuous? What if I put a disclaimer on it that it only reflects my personal views and not those of the Air Force? What if it came from a legitimate news source and I’m sharing information without comment? If I’m on leave and not in uniform, am I allowed to participate in a march for a cause? If that march protests one of those offices, is it considered contemptuous?

I hate to say, “Just don’t say or do anything,” because now we’re back to feeling like we don’t have free will; but I would say use caution and ask your commander or local Area Defense Counsel for advice if you’re so passionate for your cause that you are compelled to act.

Make no mistake, my patriotism doesn’t depend on who’s in office. My oath is sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. At the end of the day, my opinion on what’s happening in society doesn’t affect my desire or ability to lead; neither should yours. What matters more is that we can put those opinions aside to still feel a tremendous loyalty toward each other and toward the principles our country was founded on.

For those who feel frustrated that maybe our voices aren’t allowed to be heard because we serve, know that you can impact your causes without ever uttering a word. In fact, a real monetary or time donation will go far further to aid most causes than your Facebook share or Twitter shout; and your activist “volunteerism” is encouraged through the Whole Airman concept.