By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The Marine Corps has initiated disciplinary action against a Marine sergeant for comments he posted on his "Armed Forces Tea Party" Facebook page criticizing President Barack Obama, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Sergeant Gary Stein, 26, a weather forecaster assigned to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, cast the Marines' reaction to his comments as an infringement on his freedom of speech and defended his right to express personal political opinions when he is off-duty and out of uniform.
"There is not a document in this world that trumps the United States Constitution," the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted him as saying.
But Army veteran Rick Rogers, host of the San Diego military talk radio show "Front & Center," said Stein appeared to be instigating a confrontation with the Marines "to get notoriety." Stein previously ran afoul of the military over comments on his Armed Forces Tea Party page in 2010.
Defense Department rules allow military personnel to express political opinions so long as they are not doing so as representatives of the armed services.
"He had to know there's a good chance the Marine Corps would kick him out," Rogers told Reuters, explaining that associating the name of his Facebook page with the Armed Forces essentially put Stein in the position of speaking publicly while in uniform. "I believe in freedom of speech, but when you join the military, you give up some of your rights," Rogers added. "There's a firewall between the military and civilian politics -- you don't criticize the government while you're in uniform."
Stein told the newspaper the Marines accused him of making statements about the president "that are prejudicial to good order and discipline," in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and were taking steps to discharge him from the corps. Major Michael Armistead, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, said the corps had begun administrative action against Stein after a preliminary inquiry into allegations that he "posted political statements about the president of the United States on his Facebook web page titled 'Armed Forces Tea Party.'"
Armistead declined to comment further. Stein also has a separate Facebook page for a real estate business in the Southern California town of Temecula, where he lives. He did not immediately return phone calls to Reuters seeking comment. But he told the Union-Tribune that he got in trouble for a comment he posted while debating punishment faced by NATO and military personnel over burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan last month.
The comment in question has since been removed, and Stein said he could not remember it precisely. But he paraphrased himself as stating: "I say screw Obama. I will not follow orders given by him to me." He said he later clarified online that he meant he would not follow "unlawful orders" from the president. Stein enlisted in the Marines nine years ago at age 18, and deployed once to Iraq, according to the newspaper. The American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego went to bat for Stein in 2010, according to its website, sending a letter to his commanding officer at Camp Pendleton saying that the ACLU "strongly supports the First Amendment rights of service members to discuss and critique the government's policies and conduct."
News accounts at the time said Stein was rebuked by the military for criticizing Obama's national healthcare plan through his Facebook site.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)