CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - A military board has recommended dismissal for a Marine sergeant who criticized President Obama on his Facebook page, including allegedly putting the president’s face on a “Jackass’’ movie poster.
The Marine Corps administrative board said late Thursday, after a daylong hearing at Camp Pendleton, that Sergeant Gary Stein had committed misconduct and should be dismissed.
The board also recommended that Stein be given an other-than-honorable discharge, which would mean Stein would lose his benefits and not be allowed on any military base.
The board’s recommendations go to a general who will either accept or deny them. If the general disagrees with the board, the case could go to the secretary of the Navy.
Stein’s lawyers argued that the 9-year Marine, whose service was to end in four months, was expressing his personal views under the First Amendment rights.
“We’re truly surprised and disappointed, but it was an honor to fight for a hero like Sergeant Stein and every other Marine’s right to speak freely,’’ said Stein’s defense attorney, Marine Captain James Baehr.
Stein addressed board members during Thursday’s hearing, telling them he loved the Marines and wanted to reenlist, Baehr said.
Baehr expressed hope that the recommendation would be rejected by the general, saying the case will go forward. “The issues are too important for this to end today,’’ he said.
During the hearing, the prosecutor, Captain John Torresala, said Stein went as far as superimposing images of Obama’s face on a poster for the film “Jackass.’’
Torresala argued that Stein’s behavior repeatedly violated Pentagon policy that limits free speech rights of service members and said he should be dismissed 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 Obama on the “Jackass’’ movie poster.
Stein also superimposed Obama’s image on a poster for “The Incredibles’’ movie that he changed to “The Horribles,’’ the prosecutor said.
Torresala also said anti-Obama comments by Stein that were posted on a Facebook page used by Marine 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 cannot 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.’’
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. “Sergeant Stein has broken no law.’’
The military has had a policy since the Civil War limiting the free speech of service members, including criticism of 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.
“Think about how dangerous this could be if the US government can prosecute you for something you say on your private Facebook page,’’ Baehr said.
Stein has said his opinions are his own and has put a disclaimer on his Facebook page saying so. His attorneys argued service members have a right to voice their opinions as long as they do not appear to be presenting their views as being endorsed by the military.
They say the Pentagon policy is vague and military officials do not understand it.
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 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.
Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and 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.