RUNYAN: The Military Punishes Speech It Doesn’t Like

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Danielle Runyan Contributor
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The United States is one of the greatest nations in the world because of the unwavering protections provided by the Constitution, which allow every citizen the opportunity to live by their faith and speak freely. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District reminded us that “learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,’ a trait of character essential to ‘a tolerant citizenry.’”

So why is the Department of the Air Force restricting and punishing a reservist’s religious exercise and freedom of speech for benign words spoken at a private ceremony in his purely civilian off-duty capacity?

Jace Yarbrough is a Major assigned to the U.S. Space Force as a reservist who had an impeccable 12-year career, repeatedly recognized for his excellence in leadership. But this all quickly changed after he presided over the private retirement ceremony of a close friend — a Senior Master Sergeant he met during his 2013 assignment to the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard.

The ceremony took place aboard the privately owned and operated Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A total of 25 people attended. Twelve were close family and friends of the retiree and others were members of a Navy quartet. Consistent with Air Force instructions, Mr. Yarbrough wore his uniform during the event even though he was delivering his remarks in a purely civilian capacity.

During the speech, Mr. Yarbrough lauded the retiree’s courage, integrity and competence as an Airman — characteristics consistent with the Air Force’s core values, the Airman’s Creed and the oath Mr. Yarbrough swore to uphold. He then expressed his personal concerns about the negative impact of politicization within the military and how it tends to squelch the very virtues and admirable qualities he revered in the retiree.

Motivated by his faith, Mr. Yarbrough echoed the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christian and writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, regarding the corrosive cultural consequences of dishonesty and self-deception. He warned against a growing “cancel culture” in the military that in his view, undermines truth and integrity.

He explained that “radical” factions in “our wider culture” have “brought the culture war inside the DoD,” and that politicization of the military would be “a death knell for courage and competence.” He gave two examples of objective realities he personally believes are known intuitively to all persons: “men can’t birth babies” and “boys should not be allowed in girls’ locker rooms,” and explained that the “recent DoD-wide extremism training … was a thinly veiled flex of political power.”

Someone then complained to Mr. Yarbrough’s military leadership that they were offended by his comments because they “were hurtful to a group of people.” After an informal military investigation, the Air Force issued a Letter of Admonishment to Mr. Yarbrough.

Acknowledging that Mr. Yarbrough has the right “as an American Citizen to voice his opinions concerning political matters,” the Admonishment stressed that “he cannot imply those beliefs are representative of the Air Force, and his statements cannot be contemptuous.”

But it appears the DoD is only interested in supporting freedom of speech and religious expression for views that advance the current administration’s preferred narrative. This is best exemplified by the 2020 ideology expressed by the former diversity chief for the DoD’s education branch, Kelisa Wing, whose disparaging public tweets about white people were deemed acceptable and unworthy of disciplinary action because the Pentagon “determined the employee was speaking in a personal capacity.”

So why does the Air Force refuse to rescind Mr. Yarbrough’s punishment based on complaints that amount to nothing more than a “heckler’s veto?”

The answer is best captured by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in its recent opinion in Missouri v. Biden, noting the extensive evidence that the government “engaged in a years-long pressure campaign designed to ensure that the censorship of the plaintiffs’ free speech rights aligned with the government’s preferred viewpoints” and that the White House and other government agencies likely violated the First Amendment.

DoD’s punishment of Mr. Yarbrough is but one example in the federal government’s broader campaign to squelch dissent.

First Liberty Institute, Winston & Strawn, the Ave Maria School of Law Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic are representing Mr. Yarbrough in challenging the Air Force’s illegal actions in federal court.

There is no question that it is illegal and entirely un-American for the federal government to quash Constitutionally protected viewpoints, even if the speaker is a reservist in the military, and we look forward to Mr. Yarbrough being vindicated for expressing personal opinions that are consistent with the Air Force’s core values.

Danielle Runyan is Senior Counsel in the Military Practice Group at First Liberty Institute a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. First Liberty represents Mr. Yarbrough in his case. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.