CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine is facing dismissal from the military for posting Facebook images of President Barack Obama's face superimposed on a jackass and for selling "Nobama" bumper stickers online, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Sgt. Gary Stein, 26, acted irresponsibly and disregarded repeated warnings that his anti-administration postings violated Pentagon policy involving members of the military, Marine Corps Capt. John Torresala said during a hearing at Camp Pendleton.
Comments that were prejudicial to good order and discipline were posted on the Facebook page used by military meteorologists and could have influenced junior Marines, the prosecutor said.
Stein's security clearance was taken away and he has no future in the Marine Corps because he can't do his job, Torresala said.
Backed by a team of lawyers and congressmen, Stein is fighting to stay in the military and test its longtime policy of limiting the free speech of members.
His lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union contend his views are protected by the First Amendment.
Stein has rallied support since he was notified last month that the military was moving to discharge him after determining he was in violation of the Pentagon policy barring service members from engaging in political activities.
"The military may be different from the civilian world, but it's not exempt from the First Amendment," said David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties. "Sgt. Stein didn't say anything for which the Marine Corps has any right to punish him."
The Marine Corps has said it decided to take administrative action after Stein declared on Facebook that he would not follow unlawful orders from Obama.
In addition to being discharged, Stein said, he would have his rank reduced to lance corporal if he is proven to be in violation.
He said he was removed from his job at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego on Wednesday and given a desk job with no access to computers.
Loy said Stein did not threaten order or discipline or take positions that anyone would attribute to the Corps. Instead, the Corps is threatening loyalty and morale in its ranks by persecuting a Marine for exercising his free speech rights, Loy said.
Stein, a nine-year member of the Marine Corps, has said he started a Facebook page called Armed Forces Tea Party to encourage fellow service members to exercise their rights.
Defense lawyers began the hearing Thursday by asking board members about their understanding of military policy limiting members from engaging in political activities and the guidelines on expressing their personal opinions.
California federal Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, a former Marine, wrote a letter to Stein's commanding officer stating the sergeant should not face dismissal for an opinion shared by a majority of Marines. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, also has expressed support for Stein.
Stein said his statement about Obama was part of an online debate about NATO allowing U.S. troops to be tried for the Quran burnings in Afghanistan. In that context, he said, he was stating that he would not follow orders from the president if it involved detaining U.S. citizens, disarming them or doing anything else that he believes would violate their constitutional rights.
The military has had a policy since the Civil War limiting the free speech of service members, including criticizing the commander in chief. Military law experts have said Stein may have crossed the line.
Pentagon directives say military personnel in uniform cannot sponsor a political club; participate in any TV or radio program or group discussion that advocates for or against a political party, candidate or cause; or speak at any event promoting a political movement.
Commissioned officers also may not use contemptuous words against senior officials, including the defense secretary or the president.