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How Far Do First Amendment Rights Go?

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Recently, Camp Pendleton's Sgt. Gary Stein has been under fire from Marine Corps officials, the Pentagon and the public audience. After creating a Facebook group that criticized President Barack Obama, it's being suggested that Stein be given something other than an honorable discharge.

After reading this article in my local paper, I started to wonder... How are First Amendment rights different for people serving our country? Now, hear me out when I say that I'm rather torn on this issue.

Part of me (most likely the "journalist part") wants to say that everyone, military personnel included, has a right to express their thoughts, beliefs and concerns, and that they should be able to do so however they please.

On the other hand, shouldn't our armed forces, which are representing and defending the United States, respect their commander in chief? I understand disagreeing with authority; however, publishing these convictions on such a public forum portrays a sense of disunity.

Peter Bella of the Washington Times put it best when he said, "There is a long-standing policy and tradition in the military of respecting rank. You do not have to respect the person holding the rank, but you must respect the rank they hold."

In the military, everyone answers to someone: Corporals answer to sergeants; captains answer to majors; lieutenant generals answer to generals. There is a system of checks and balances on every level. Even the president has to work with Congress.

When you are a subordinate in any field, someone has rank above you. They make orders that are not always popular, but it comes down to an issue of respect and authority. However, sometimes a situation reaches its pinnacle, and an individual can no longer blindly obey orders.

So, here we are, back again to the case of Sgt. Stein. His Facebook page, "Armed Forces Tea Party," currently has more than 28,000 likes. Its mission is to "offer a forum that will allow the voices of the U.S. Armed Forces to stand with the Tea Party movement, and be heard."

Harmless as this may seem, the page also features photos denigrating Obama, although rumor has it that some particularly controversial images have been removed since being brought to the military's attention. Several of their statuses have also been against the Obama administration and Democratic Party.

Where is the line drawn? Does loyalty to one's nation and armed forces outweigh personal convictions and freedom of speech?

The First Amendment is pretty direct in its purpose, but it has been at the center of debates for ages.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I see that in our nation's Constitution, and ponder all of the battles and court cases that have taken place to fight for our rights to free speech, and can't help but think that people therefore have a right to express themselves.

It seems to me that what sets this incident apart from any ordinary criticism of the government (and we hear those on a daily basis from all fronts) is that these statements came from someone who is expected to wholeheartedly support our nation's president and administration, and that he chose to voice his opinions in such a public manner.

While Stein may have had the legal right to post his beliefs, it probably wasn't his finest moment. I have the utmost respect for people in all branches of our military. I know people in the Marines and the Army, and my own little brother is en route to a career in the Navy. I have seen the sacrifices made by these individuals, and have seen how it affects them before, during and after their service.

Although I understand where such frustration/disparagements might come from, I believe when you enlist, you must realize that you are in a different position than the average citizen.

My advice? Do what you intended to do upon enlisting, and be proud of your accomplishments. Acknowledge that all governments are flawed in some way, but bide your time and think of an appropriate way to share your thoughts.

I respect Stein for standing up for his beliefs, and am ceaselessly appreciative for the service of him and others, but I don't necessarily agree with his actions.

As someone recently told me, give yourself time before posting something controversial, and make sure it's worth it.