CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) — A Marine facing dismissal from the military for his Facebook comments went as far as posting superimposed images of President Barack Obama's face on a donkey, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Prosecutor Capt. John Torresala said the behavior by Marine Sgt. Gary Stein repeatedly violated Pentagon policy limiting the free speech rights of service members.
The comments came at a military administrative hearing where Stein was called irresponsible and a prosecutor said he should be dismissed from the military after ignoring warnings from his superiors about his postings.
The government submitted screen grabs of Stein's postings on one Facebook page he created called Armed Forces Tea Party, which the prosecutor said included the image of the "jackass," and another page used by Marines such as Stein who work as military meteorologists.
Torresala said the anti-Obama comments posted on the page used by meteorologists were prejudicial to good order and discipline, and could have influenced junior Marines.
Stein's security clearance was taken away and he has no future in the Marine Corps because he can't do his job without that clearance, Torresala said.
"The Marine Corps community views the command's lack of action as some kind of knock on good order and discipline," Torresala said. "Our own people are questioning why this Marine is not being held accountable."
Defense attorney Marine Capt. James Baehr said during the hearing that prosecutors were trying to dredge up any damaging information they could against Stein.
"There is no basis in this case," Baehr said. "Sgt. Stein has broken no law."
The military has had a policy since the Civil War limiting the free speech of service members, including criticizing the commander in chief.
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.
Backed by a team of lawyers and congressmen, Stein has said he is fighting for his constitutional rights and should be allowed to stay in the military. 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.
"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 administrative board can only make a recommendation on the case that will be passed on to a general who will either accept or deny it. That could take more than a month.
If the general disagrees with the board, the case could go to the secretary of the Navy. Military prosecutors have said they regularly handle such cases and service members often are disciplined as a result.
The Marine Corps has said it decided to take administrative action after Stein declared on Facebook that he would not follow orders from Obama and later clarified that statement saying he would not follow unlawful orders.
Stein could face other-than-honorable discharge while seeing his rank reduced to lance corporal and losing his benefits. The nine-year veteran was set to finish his service in four months.
He said he was removed from his job at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego last month 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.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., 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-Calif., also 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.