Thursday, January 29, 2009

Return of the Speech Police?

Air Force Commander Bans Negative Comments About Obama, But Policy has Legal, Enforcement Problems

by Nate Hale

Less than two weeks after Barack Obama became commander-in-chief, a senior Air Force officer has cautioned subordinates about publicly criticizing the new president and his administration.

Colonel Jack Franz, who leads the 677th Aeronautical Systems Group (AESG) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, recently sent an e-mail to all members of his command. In the message, Colonel Franz expresses concern about "several political comments in the local media, and I am sure, around Wright-Patterson AFB."

"Our local news radio station (WHIO) is playing up Rush Limbaugh's comments about our new president and his cabinet," Franz wrote. The Colonel was referring to the talk show host's comment that he "doesn't want Obama to succeed."

In a recent interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, Mr. Limbaugh made it clear that his opposition to Obama was based on the president's policies.

"If he's going to do FDR--if he's going to do the New New Deal...why would I want him to succeed?" the talk radio titan asked. "If his agenda is a far-left collectivism--some people say socialism --why would I want socialism to succeed?"

But Colonel Franz described the radio host's comments as "inappropriate and un-American." And he made it clear that similar criticism would not be tolerated in his organization.

"We need to be very clear," the commander stated in his e-mail. Our mission is to support and defend the constitution of the United States. That means supporting our elected officials, as well as the officers appointed over us, and ensuring they succeed."

Franz warned that similar comments in the workplace "or at any official function" would be "grounds for removal." Colonel Franz stated that the policy applies to military personnel, government civilians, contractors and even visitors to the group.

In the e-mail's final paragraph, Franz encouraged members of his command to "correct individuals on the spot" if they cross the line of political criticism. "Do not walk away from a problem or allow issues to grow," he cautioned.

The 677th is one of several aeronautical systems groups at Wright-Patterson. The units are charged with the development, test, production and sustainment of various Air Force weapons systems.

A typical AESG includes hundreds of military personnel, civil service employees and contractor representatives. Many of the groups administer multi-billion dollar annual budgets.

Colonel Franz did not respond to an e-mail request for comment from this blog. Queries to various public affairs offices at Wright-Patterson AFB also went unanswered.

While the commander's ban on anti-Obama comments apparently remains in effect, some have questioned its legality and enforceability. An Air Force Judge Advocate General who reviewed the "policy" described it as "no way" and "way over the line."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the legal officer noted that the speech limitation could not be applied to DoD civilians, or contractors working in the organization. He laughed at the notion of trying to enforce the rule on visitors to the 677th AESG.

As for military personnel, the JAG acknowledged that there are limits on their speech that can be enforced by commanders. While members of the armed services can privately disagree with the policies of their superiors, they cannot make disparaging remarks while on duty.

Colonel Franz's edict also drew chuckles from a retired Chief Master Sergeant who served in First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Advisor positions during a career that spanned more than 20 years. "Always run this stuff through JA (Judge Advocate) and even PA (Public Affairs) before you publish," he advised.

But the e-mail also has a chilling effect, according to the former senior enlisted advisor. He compared it to written and verbal guidance issued during the Clinton Administration, when Air Force members were reminded to be respectful to the president.

The retired chief, who also requested anonymity, recalls a steady stream of "e-mails, briefings and constant reminders" warning against negative comments about Bill Clinton during his time in office. He remembers seeing the directives during successive assignments in Washington, D.C., Florida, Europe and Georgia, and they continued until Mr. Clinton left office in 2001. The various communications reminded Air Force members of potential punishment if they violated the ban.

Under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, "any commissioned officer" of the armed forces may be court-martialed for making "contemptuous remarks" about the President, Vice-President, members of Congress and other senior officials, while on duty, or "present."

During the Clinton era, at least one senior Air Force officer ran afoul of that regulation. Major General Harold Campbell was forced to retire in 1993, after describing the president as "draft-dodging," "womanizing" and "pot-smoking" at an awards dinner in Europe.

However, the UCMJ does not apply to the military's civilian employees, or defense contractors. The Hatch Act, which covers campaign activities by civil servants, does not limit their political speech.

It is unclear if any contractor or civil service employees in Franz's command have challenged the new policy.

There are no reports of other organizations at Wright-Patterson following the example of the 677th AESG.

***
ADDENDUM:

Here's the e-mail from Col Franz, in its entirety:

Everyone,

Over the past week there have been several political comments in the local media and I am sure probably around Wright Patterson AFB. Our local news radio station (WHIO) is playing up Rush Limbaugh's comments about our new President and his cabinet. These comments are totally inappropriate and I feel un-American.

We need to be very clear. Our mission is to support and defend the constitution of the United States. That means supporting our elected officials, as well as the officers appointed over us, and ensuring they succeed. Comments in the work place, or any at any official function, contrary to our role to support any of these individuals is grounds for removal. This rule pertains to military, government civilians, contractors or any visitors.

If an individual crosses this line, it is everyone's duty to correct them on the spot. Do not walk away from a problem or allow issues to grow. The political debates and campaigns are over; we are now focused on moving forward to continue to defend America. We all can have pride in that the 677th AESG has always dealt directly and openly with questionable issues and kept any discrimination out of our work place. Let's keep it that way.

Thanks,

Jack

JACK FRANZ, COL., USAF
677th AESG, Commander (AFMC)

16 comments:

kitanis said...

This goes above what we went though during the Clinton Administration.

Article 88 is common broken article.. I noticed that no email messages like this were flying when people were talking about George Bush.. and Yes there were negative comments about our previous president because of the Iraq War.

Why worry about what one talk show host is saying about Obama?

I too would Love to see this commander apply his new policy to visitors.

J.R. said...

The only part of that e-mail that's out of line is the blanket statement about civilians & contractors. Anyone wearing a uniform knows the rules: the President is in your chain, so you salute smartly and shut up unless he's giving you an unlawful order.

Civilians and contractors who work with the military should know that their uniformed co-workers are forbidden to express opinions on the subject. The civilians are free to discuss what's going on in Congress, but it's impolite and socially awkward to put your co-workers in that kind of position.

Of course, that one line is definitely over the line. I imagine that Wright-Patt legal affairs will send him their recommended revisions, and the new orders will be posted ASAP.

Aside to kitanis - it might not have been from my base commander, but I was frequently reminded of my Article 88 responsibilities around elections every year regardless of who was in charge. We were in very civilian-heavy shops, but we all knew that politics was off-limits. The military leans right, so the odds of a soldier popping off in public are higher now that a Democrat is our President -- I'm sure the commander doesn't want to have to fire anyone for a stupid mistake.

fmfnavydoc said...

What was Col. Franz thinking when he sent out this e-mail? It reminds me of the Clinton years, when I heard all of this "PC" talk coming from mid-grade officers and CPO's/SNCO's. Having to resort to this shows me a couple of things (1) he's worried about his next fitness report and (2) he doesn't have the leadership skills to talk with his leaders in his unit to remind them of their responsibilities as Airmen and Air Force civilian employees (if this is an actual problem in the unit).

Ban move, Col.... you look like an idiot now...

Storms24 said...

A National Guard unit in Illinois was recently sent a similar email from a commander in which subordinates were reminded of the hazards of "inappropriate" and "negative" comments regarding the (now impeached and removed) state governor. It had little effect on stopping the "water cooler talk" but it certainly had a chilling effect on morale. Far from being a reminder of our duties and responsibilities, it reinforced the notion that senior leaders were chosen more for their political affiliation rather than the leadership abilities.

kitanis said...

J.R.

I would like to Clarify.. I was the one reminding the individuals I was speaking about to their Article 88 responsiblities..

But the people I was speaking of were of higher rank and refused to stop the sly comments. I refered them to the flight commander.. but nothing was ever done. It was very frustrating experience for me.

Imagine my surprise when I went into civil service (dept of energy) after my retirement and was regularily hearing negative comments about the President. Of course the no comment policy there was ignored even though it was covered in our ethic training.

SMSgt Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SMSgt Mac said...

(typos corrected, I hope)

Well well well. The O-6 seems to go over the line a little bit himself here doesn't he?

"These comments are totally inappropriate and I feel un-American."

And how exactly is that little statement, disparaging the exercise of free speech by an American Citizen, NOT making political speech in the Col's official capacity?

The Colonel then ranges in the realm of the insidious:

"Our mission is to support and defend the constitution [sic] of the United States. That means supporting our elected officials, as well as the officers appointed over us, and ensuring they succeed."

Tying obedience to our oaths to 'supporting our elected officials' and 'ensuring they succeed' extends only so far as it relates to our duty to the Constitution. The Colonel's statement smacks of 'my Commander right or wrong'. Perhaps the Colonel would like to expand upon his understanding of the differences between disparagement of our Civilan authorites and disparagement of their bad policies, especially as it relates to topics unrelated to Defense?

I blame the Col's poor rhetoric on poor parenting. The SNCOs he came in contact with as a company-grade Zero should be ashamed.

PCSSEPA said...

Col. Franz is an idiot and apparently is the self appointed determiner of what is and what isn't un-American. Col. Franz has a right to his opinions - when he is off duty and speaking only for himself and not his command. The dear Colonel has crossed the line. His statement was fine until he injected his personal political view by attacking Mr. Limbaugh and free politcal speech. It is certainly within his purview to remind those under his command of Article 88; however, he went far afield and well beyond his authority.

I remember my oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There was nothing in the oath about supporting politicians or blindly following the orders of superiors. "I was just following orders" doesn't cut it anymore as a defense in an Article 32 hearing. Colonel Franz needs a little Indivdual Instruction reminding him that he has a duty to support and defend the Constitution - all of it, including Mr. Limbaugh's 1st Amendment guarantee of free political speech. Is he a Colonel or a comrade?

davod said...

Maybe the Colonel is one upset Democrat.

Jim Howard said...

Let's see, the Colonel sends out an email joining the President in a political attack on a private citizen. The he has the gall in his next breath to warn his underlings about keeping 'discrimination out of our work place'!!!!

I am seriously considering filing an IG complaint with the inspector general of the Air Force by this Commander.

I understand that sucking up to the boss is an old Air Force tradition, but oral sex is best performed in private.

TOF said...

Nate:

You may be too young to have experienced it, but many an exercise scenario during the Carter reign had him being a vacillating dope who couldn't make a decision. Not that it wasn't to the point.

Spook86 said...

Jim--Please drop me a line at icspook86@hotmail.com.

Ken Prescott said...

Over the past week there have been several political comments in the local media and I am sure probably around Wright Patterson AFB. Our local news radio station (WHIO) is playing up Rush Limbaugh's comments about our new President and his cabinet. These comments are totally inappropriate and I feel un-American.

Would someone kindly explain to me how it's any of Colonel Franz's official business as to whether the remarks of a private citizen are in any way appropriate or not?

A. said...

I have to raise the BS flag. I saw these same sort of cautions about comments about G.W. Bush when he was CINC. I did, not however, hear from my comrades-in-arms the same level of vitriol about Bush as I heard about Clinton. The fact is, the current president is the CINC. Period. It does not enhance the mission to stand around and jackjaw about how much you hate him or how you hope his policies fail. We support the Constitution and our president is Constitutionally elected.

Civilians are NOT free to express their opinions about politics if they express support for the success or failure of one party over the other. That is part of the Hatch Act.

For crying out loud people, what ever happened to just doing your job? Leave the politics at home. No one can tell what you can and can't say there.

SMSgt Mac said...

Hey 'A'.
How about reading the freakin' post and then the thread before getting your panties in a bunch? The only person we can confirm is engaged in political activity related to official capacity is the good Colonel himself. THAT is generally the freaking point of most of the comments.

As to your:
"Civilians are NOT free to express their opinions about politics if they express support for the success or failure of one party over the other. That is part of the Hatch Act."
You get a day or two to clarify your point before I use it as a 'BS' burial shroud for your late-irate driveby.

I would recommend you actually read the Hatch Act first. There IS a government website available to help you navigate the nuances if you can find it.

SMSgt Mac said...

It looks like Former Spook has already taken care o things with a follow up post in which a certain 0-6does a CYA that is't going over too well. oh well.