Sir, Can I Publish This, Sir!

Do soldiers have free speech rights?

A soldier in Afghanistan

The New York Times published an op-ed on Sunday by seven infantrymen and noncommissioned officers serving in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. The writers expressed skepticism “of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable” and went on to describe Iraq as a “lawless environment.” Are Army personnel free to publicize their opinions?

Yes, as long as they clear a security review. According to Army regulations (PDF), soldiers must consult with their immediate supervisor and their operations-security officer before disseminating articles, Web-site postings, or other statements in a public forum. The OPSEC officer (usually a major or chief warrant officer) then checks for “critical information,” such as command-unit locations or weapons capabilities. Despite these guidelines, Army PR reps insist that OPSEC officers don’t actually monitor each and every communication—especially when it comes to blogs. After receiving “awareness training,” blogger-soldiers are often entrusted to post messages without prior approval.

Members of the armed forces who air their grievances in a public setting must also specify that their views don’t reflect those of the Department of Defense. To ensure that the ideological distance between the DoD and individual authors is patently obvious, the Joint Ethics Regulation instructs writers to print disclaimers in a “prominent position.” The Times op-ed contributors were thus wise to stress at the bottom of the first paragraph that their “personal views” do not represent the “chain of command.”

What happens if a soldier publishes an article that fails to comply with operations-security policies? He’ll most likely be punished for disregarding an order under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If the writer is a commissioned officer, and his article is especially hard on the president, vice president, secretary of defense, or another government executive, then he might be accused of using “contemptuous words” against an official and charged under Article 88. Either way, there’s a good chance the outspoken serviceman will face a court-martial.

Historically, active servicemen and -women have exercised their First Amendment rights through official Army newspapers and the unofficial GI press. While serving with the 45th Infantry Division during World War II, a sergeant named Bill Mauldin drew anti-authoritarian cartoons for Stars and Stripes. Gen. Patton threatened to ban the paper from his Third Army, but Gen. Eisenhower maintained that censorship would undermine morale and kept the publication afloat. During Vietnam, GIs stationed at home and abroad published more than 300 “underground” newspapers, many of which expressed strong opposition to the war effort. Some GIs were intimidated or even arrested just for having such newspapers in their possession, but the Army’s 1969 Guidance on Dissent sanctioned their distribution.

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Explainer thanks Dr. James Lewes of Displaced Films and Maj. Cheryl Phillips of the U.S. Army Public Affairs Division.