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.
Here's the e-mail from Col Franz, in its entirety:
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.
JACK FRANZ, COL., USAF
677th AESG, Commander (AFMC)