Air Force Colonel Who Banned Anti-Obama Comments Clarifies Position, But Subordinates Remain Confused
by Nate Hale
The Air Force Commander who banned negative comments about President Obama--and raised concerns about restrictions on free speech--has issued a new e-mail, clarifying his policy. But members of his unit remain confused about the ban and the motivations behind it.
Colonel Jack Franz, Commander of the 677th Aeronautical Systems Group (AESG) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, recently sent a second e-mail to members of his unit. The message, dated 9 February, was aimed at "clarifying" his initial directive, which was issued shortly after last year's presidential election. Franz also said he hoped that the e-mail would provide a "bit of context" to help explain the situation.
In his original e-mail, Colonel Franz expressed "concern" about "several political comments in the local media, and I'm 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, a reference to the conservative host's remark that he "didn't want Obama to succeed." In subsequent interviews, Mr. Limbaugh made it clear that his opposition was based on Obama's policies, not personal reasons.
But Franz described the host's comments as "inappropriate and un-American," and emphasized the similar criticism would not be tolerated in his unit.
"We need to be very clear," the Colonel 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 also warned that similar remarks in the 677th AESG or at "official functions" would be grounds for removal. The commander said the edict applied to all members of the group, including military personnel, civilian employees, contractors and even visitors.
The Colonel's policy touched off a minor firestorm after the e-mail was reprinted by In From the Cold and other outlets. Franz was widely criticized for extending his policy to non-military personnel. While all of the armed forces limit political speech for military members, those prohibitions do not extend to Defense Department civilians, contractors and civilians.
Others were puzzled by his reference to Rush Limbaugh, wondering why he used the host's comments as a foundation for his policy. Mr. Limbaugh has never served in the military and has no formal ties to the armed services. Critics of Franz noted that the talk show king was simply exercising his First Amendment rights in criticizing Obama--rights outlined in the same Constitution that the Colonel has vowed to defend.
In his latest message, Franz writes that "some of you raised legitimate questions about my e-mail regarding political activities and discussions in the workplace."
"We at Wright-Patterson are committed to safeguarding the rights of all our employees (both military and civilian) to free expression, while at the same time maintaining good order and discipline within our units," he continued.
But Colonel Franz also urged his personnel to be "vigilant" in focusing on mission accomplishment and unit cohesion, claiming that "politically-related comments have been made that were [at best] potentially destructive to good order and discipline, and at worst reflected discriminatory undertones among some of our personnel."
The commander said these remarks "only serve to divide and distract us" from our common mission under the Constitution. However, Franz did not say how many comments were overheard, or what made them so objectionable.
Franz's latest e-mail has created confusion among some personnel. One member of the 677th, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he was not aware of "any" derogatory remarks about President Obama by unit personnel. "I don't know what to think," he said.
Other individuals assigned to the group described Colonel Franz as a "good guy," but expressed shock about the original note.
A retired Chief Master Sergeant, with years of experience as a First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Adviser, suggested that Franz's concerns might be misplaced. If the problem genuinely exists, the chief suggested, the group may have discrimination and racial problems that require more action than an e-mail.
In his clarification message, Colonel Franz said his purpose was to "make clear our shared obligation to respect and honor the authority of our duly-appointed leadership," and "to maintain our historical posture as a politically-disinterested military under civilian control."
The commander also expressed hope that situations involving potential discrimination can be "resolved amicably," while cautioning that "continued violations of good order and discipline may bring more serious repercussions as necessary and appropriate."
The full text of Franz's latest e-mail is provided below. Neither the Colonel nor Air Force public affairs officers at Wright-Patterson have responded to requests for comment.
From: Franz, John H Col USAF AFMC 677 AESG/CC
Sent: Monday, February 09, 2009 6:02 PM
To: 677 AESG All Personnel
Some of you raised legitimate questions about my email regarding political activities and discussions in the workplace. I want to clarify my intentions for you, and also provide a bit of context that I think helps explain the situation.
Let me start by reiterating what I hope most of you know - that we at Wright-Patterson AFB are committed to safeguarding the rights of all our employees (both military and civilian) to free expression, while at the same time maintaining good order and discipline within our units. Over the past several months, many of us have enjoyed the right to engage in various aspects of the political process, both formally and informally. While we certainly do celebrate these freedoms, we in the 677th AESG must also be vigilant to maintain our focus on mission accomplishment and unit cohesiveness.
In the weeks following the 2008 election, some politically-related comments have been made that at best were potentially destructive to good order and discipline, and at worst reflected discriminatory undertones among some of our personnel. These kinds of comments only serve to divide and distract us from our common mission under the Constitution. The purpose of my email was to make clear our shared obligation to respect and honor the authority of our duly-appointed leadership, and to maintain our historical posture as a politically-disinterested military under civilian control.
We will always address situations involving potential discrimination on an individual basis, often in an informal manner and certainly with regard to the rights of our personnel. These situations can often be resolved amicably, but it is possible that continued violations of good order and discipline may bring more serious repercussions as necessary and appropriate. It is my hope that such actions will not be necessary.
I understand that some of you read my earlier email as attempting to unduly interfere with your freedom of expression, while at the same time making a political statement of my own. I sincerely apologize for causing any confusion, and I hope this email clarifies both my personal intent and our unit's policy.
Thank you for what each of you are contributing to our work, and to the defense of our nation. If you have further questions or concerns about this, please let me know or use our anonymous feedback link. Below are links to additional information helpful in understanding our rights and responsibilities as Air Force members.
For information on political activities by members of the U.S. Air Force, see http://www.e-publishing.af.mil/shared/media/epubs/AFI51-902.pdf
For information on dissident and protest activities by members of the U.S. Air Force, see http://www.e-publishing.af.mil/shared/media/epubs/AFI51-903.pdf
For information on Civilian Employees' Participation in Political Activities, see http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/defense_ethics/dod_oge/DepSecDef_Memo_14_Nov_07
For information on the Hatch Act, see http://www.osc.gov/ha_fed.htm
JACK FRANZ, COL., USAF
677th AESG, Commander (AFMC)
Training System Product Group