As the popularity of social networks continues to increase, their users often learn the hard way about the dangers and consequences of ‘over-sharing’ or posting comments without first thinking them through properly. Sometimes, those consequences can seem severe, as in the case of the British student sentenced last month to 56 days in prison for racial slurs which he posted on Twitter. Sometimes, they can appear nonsensical, as in the recent case of the American high-school student who was expelled when his school claimed that he had used a school computer to post tweets that included swear words from his home in the middle of the night.
The latest high profile instance of sharing-gone-wrong is that of United States Marine Sergeant Gary Stein, 26, who posted comments on Facebook stating that he would not follow the orders of his commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama.
Stein, who is a meteorologist, posted comments to a Facebook group called METOC – accessible only by oceanographers and meteorologists in active military service. There, he described President Obama as ‘an enemy to America’.
On his personal Facebook account, he posted numerous images ridiculing President Obama, including one in which the President was described as ‘Jackass Number One’. On the ‘Armed Forces Tea Party’ page, which Stein founded on Facebook, anti-Obama sentiments aren’t hard to find. According to Reuters, it was here that he stated that he would refuse to obey the President’s orders, comments which he later removed and restated with the caveat that he had meant he would only refuse unlawful or illegal orders.
A Marine Corps review board has been investigating the case, and has ruled that Marine Sgt Stein should be ejected from the military with a less-than-honourable discharge. While the finding of the review board is not binding, it will make a recommendation to the commanding officer of the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, Brigadier General Daniel Yoo.
But this is new territory for the military, which does not yet have established procedures or guidelines for managing how its personnel use social media. Many articles in the Uniform Code of Military Justice are, bizarrely, too specific to apply to the particular situation of a non-commissioned officer (as Stein is) publicly or privately expressing disrespect towards his most superior commander. Perhaps the most relevant clause will be UCMJ Article 134, which states that:
…all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court.”
That would seem to be the end of the matter, except that Stein and his supporters (including a coalition of attorneys) claim that the First Amendment guarantees his right to freedom of speech.
Brigadier General Yoo is expected to deliver his personal decision on Marine Sgt Stein’s fate within the next few weeks. Stein may be given a general discharge without consequence, but if he is discharged dishonourably, he stands to lose his military benefits, and would also lose the right to call himself a military ‘veteran’, a protected term, and one which Stein seems to relish using on his Tea Party page.
As the military works to establish procedures and guidelines for handling infractions involving personnel and social media, this latest incident stands as a reminder to all – both inside and outside of the armed forces – of the need to think carefully before posting comments on social media. The consequences for anyone of casually sharing a half-formed thought or a controversial viewpoint can be severe – although whether those consequences are just and proper or not often remains far from certain.