By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times –
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Marine lawyers Thursday urged that a sergeant be booted out of the Marine Corps for having made “contemptuous” comments about President Barack Obama that are “prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
Sgt. Gary Stein posted comments on Facebook calling Obama a coward and “the economic and religious enemy,” a three-member Administrative Discharge Board was told. Stein urged the president’s defeat in this year’s election, writing “screw Obama.”
Stein also posted a picture of a donkey with Obama’s face on the rear end, the board was told.
“This is what he’s putting out to the public, and he’s a sergeant of Marines, on active duty,” said Capt. John Torresala, representing Stein’s commander. “How can this not be prejudicial to good order and discipline?”
But lawyers for Stein said that because his comments were made off-duty, not in his capacity as a Marine, they are protected by the First Amendment. Marine rules about political expression are vague and sometimes contradictory, they argued.
Capt. James Baehr, calling the Stein case the most important of the hundreds he has handled, said that restricting Marines from engaging in political speech makes them less than first-class citizens.
“How can we expect Marines to participate in citizenship if they cannot join political discussions?” he told the board.
Baehr said that Marine brass will make the Marine Corps look vindictive by seeking to oust Stein just months from the end of his enlistment, and possibly give him an other-than-honorable discharge.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said. “We don’t have to make this decision that will drag the Marine Corps through the mud.”
Stein, 26, a nine-year veteran who served in Iraq, posted his comments on four websites, including one that he created called Armed Forces Tea Party. He has given numerous media interviews since it became known that he faced discharge.
The discharge board, composed of two officers and a senior enlisted Marine, will recommend whether Stein should be discharged. The final decision will be made by the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Stein, a weather forecaster by training, is assigned to scheduling the rifle ranges at Camp Pendleton. He lost the security clearance necessary for a weather forecaster because of bad debts, Torresala said.
Stein’s enlistment is set to end in July, and he had hoped to re-enlist. A resident of Temecula, Calif., he and his wife have a 4-year-old daughter. His wife, who is pregnant, runs a horse ranch, and Stein is a real estate agent in his off-hours.
Lawyers for his command say Stein has violated several orders restricting Marines from making partisan political statements or comments “contemptuous” of the chain of command, including the commander in chief. On one website, Stein is selling bumper stickers that read: NOBAMA 2012.
Stein’s civilian lawyers are from the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative United States Justice Foundation, two groups that are often at legal odds. Both believe Stein is being treated unfairly and his First Amendment rights violated.
Federal Judge Marilyn Huff rejected a request Wednesday for an order blocking the discharge board hearing. But she suggested she might later be willing to consider arguments about whether Stein’s First Amendment rights were denied by the Marine Corps and the discharge board.