By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine facing discipline and possible discharge for using his "Armed Forces Tea Party" Facebook page to criticize President Barack Obama has filed suit seeking to halt military proceedings against him.
Lawyers for Sergeant Gary Stein, 26, a meteorologist stationed at Camp Pendleton, were expected in federal court in San Diego on Wednesday to try to block the proceedings, arguing that the Marine Corps was violating his right to free speech. Stein ran into trouble for a critical comment he posted in an online debate over the punishment faced by NATO and U.S. military personnel over burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan.
The Marine sergeant has said he is free to express personal political opinions when he is off-duty and out of uniform, and Defense Department rules allow soldiers to make political statements so long as they are not doing so as representatives of the armed services.
Military experts have said that by associating the name of his Facebook page with the armed forces, Stein essentially put himself in the position of speaking publicly while in uniform.
Stein posted a copy of his lawsuit, along with a letter sent to the Marine Corps on his behalf by U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, a former Marine who supports Stein, on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
There was no immediate comment on the court action from the military. The suit names the sergeant's commanding officer, the commander of the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot where Stein works as a weather forecaster, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Defense Department as defendants.
The remarks at issue have since been removed from Facebook. But in an account he gave the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, Stein paraphrased himself as stating: "I say screw Obama. I will not follow orders given by him to me." Stein said he later clarified online that he meant he would not follow "unlawful orders" from the president, the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces.
The site, though titled "Armed Forces Tea Party," carries a disclaimer: "We do not represent, and are in no way affiliated with the military, or United States Armed Forces."
Stein ran afoul of the Marine Corps once before, in 2010, for expressing his opinion as a member of the armed forces rather than as a civilian over comments he made on the same Facebook page. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union spoke up for him, and the group's local attorney is among those who have signed the lawsuit complaint on his Facebook page.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Vicki Allen)