The Washington Post

Should the Army punish a soldier for speaking at a Ron Paul rally?

Jan 05, 2012

The Army said Wednesday that it was examining whether a 28-year-old Army reservist breached military protocol when he spoke at a Ron Paul rally in Iowa on the night of the caucuses. Corporal Thorsen, who some are referring to as "Jesse the solider," praised Paul's foreign policy, saying it was better than that of other candidates.

Should this servicemember's actions be a punishable offense? To what extent should the Army be able to dictate how a servicemember supports a candidate?

Brad Hirshfield will discuss this topic with readers Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. Submit your questions and opinions now.

A soldier, Ron Paul and political opinion
Watch the video: Soldier throw his support behind Ron Paul


I'm Brad Hirschfield and it's a pleasure to welcome you to our first live chat for 2012!  Today's topic?  Freedom of speech -- what limits exist, why they exist and what you think about all that.


First there was Joe The Plumber, and now there is Jesse The Soldier.  Should the United States Army take action in the case of Corporal Jesse Thorsen, who spoke, while in uniform, to CNN and then took the stage at a Ron Paul rally?  What About free speech? 

The code of uniform military justice outlines the boundaries on this issue. Under civil service it's the Hatch Act. It's critical to restrict the political behavior of certain groups within government to maintain their nonpartisan status -- the military being the most important in that regard. Generally, one is not allowed to in any way use one's official position or the uniform as a prop for political speech. As a private citizen you can say anything you like, but official position is not private property, it belongs to the State. Please comment on whether the soldier made use of his official position to claim authority on the matter or if he wore a uniform.

Corporal Thorsen WAS in uniform, and while the military's legal experts will have to make the final reccomendations and his superiors will have to make the final decision, it seems clear to me that he ran afoul of a number of different Department Of Defense directives.

Does that constitute "use of his official position"?  It's great question even if it turns out not to be central to the question with which the military will deal.  Why?  Because it is the kind of question which needs to be carefully asked by anyone whose office or uniform lend potentially coercive authority to the positions which they take.

In the case of Cpl. Thorsen, however unwittingly so, I think that his appearance in uniorm dis make use of his official position.

I should also point out here that many of the questions and comments coming in are quite lengthy and so my responses may be a bit slower in coming than is usually the case!

The Army isn't attempting to stifle Corporal Thorsen's views or voice, but they do need to maintain the appearance that they are outside the political spectrum, the same as every other part of the Federal Government. As a Federal Employee I am not allowed to participate in a political rally when I wear my Federal ID badge because it might appear that I am there on official business. Corporal Thorsen could have said everything he said so long as he was not in uniform. The policy on this is clear and he violated it- he wore the uniform at a political event that gave the appearance that the US Army was supporting Ron Paul. He deserves to take the punishment.

To be fair, the Army IS attemtping to stiffle Cpl. Thorsen, or more accurately, to limit him in the expression of his views -- as well they should!  The issue is NOT simply to "maintain the appearance" that the army does not belong to any one political party or politician, but to make sure that it does not.  Doing so necessarily requires that while in uniform, members of the military must surrender certain rights which other private citizens may otherwise excercise.


As to the punishment which Cpl. Thorsen deserves of does not deserve, it's a bit more complicated -- no specifics are laid out in the relevant DOD directives.

I have 2 questions,  1) Did the soldier in question wear his uniform when speaking to the crowd at that Dr. Ron Paul gathering? 2) In speaking to the crowd did the soldier represent himself as speaking for the Armed Forces, specifically the Army and did he represent himself as speaking for the entire Army's cadre of enlisted officers?

He was in uniform, not dress but field, and did address military policy when speaking to CNN at the event.

He did not represent himself as speaking for the army, his unit, or any other official body, but that is not the only issue here.  The uniform itself is a statement -- a very powerful one, as it should be given the appropriate pride it inspires in most Americans.  The thing is, that along with the pride, come obligations which fall upon those wearing the uniform. 

Why not arrest the soldier under the new NDAA provisions since Obama and all but one GOP candidate supports the assassination of US citizens, Iranian scientists and anyone near the target of a missile drone? I am a veteran of the Gulf war in 1991. Ron Paul 2012

I applaud both your service and your political advocacy, whether I share your views or not.  That said, your snarkiness is less helpful, especially if it is your hope that others might be persuaded of your views.


Bottom line, nobody is suggesting that Cpl. Thorsen be arrested and your analysis of NDAA is so wrong, that it's not even wrong.

Not to include double standards, but, what is the Army's policies on soldier's participation in political rallies? Retired USAF here. I recall that the USAF policy, but maybe the Army has a broader policy.

Policy is covered under a number of directives, including DOD Directive 1344.10, which not only limits uniformed personnel but even demands that they refrain from those actions which are "contrary to the spirit and intention" of all related directives.  so if by "broader" you mean a policy which makes every effort to avoid exactly what Thorsen did, then yes, it's broader than you may have imagined.

how could usa guvt even think a serviceman should give up citizen rights he's expected to die for? that would be the ultimate demise of any remaining semblance of a democratic usa...

Not at all.  The military makes many demands on those in service, greater than those in civilian life.  That's not new at all.  A "democratic usa", and the desire to preserve it, are the concerns which lie at the center of this question.

Democracy is not about all people always being able to do as they please, or even always being able to do the same things.   Our democracy strives to maximize each of those things, recognizing that at any given moment, different citizens give up different things to maintain the highest level of equality for the greatest number of people, for the longest period of time.

As wrong as it was for Cpl. Thorsen to speak on Tuesday night at the post-caucus rally, the Paul campaign has to be held to account for its role too. Lets not beat around the bush - the campaign used the reservist as a prop, pure and simple. If he was dressed in street clothes, his verbal message may have been the same but it would not be as "effective" - touting Paul's military views.

100% correct.  Unfortunately, there is little to be done regarding the campaign, so the the "prop" will end up like all props -- used until disposed of.

Only if the soldier in question did not follow the rules of the Army.

And it certainly appears that he did not.  Perhaps he was unaware of the reg.s, and perhaps he was so enthusiastic that he simply get carried away.  Either way, while not the biggest deal in the world, given the abuses which flow from the all-too-common merging of military and goverenmental power, it is worthy of attention and caution.

I don't know whether Corporal Thorsen broke protocol, but as a matter of political and ethical principle, what he did was inappropriate. It's one thing for a service member to discuss election preferences among comrades or civilian friends in private life, or even to publicly favor a position on proposed laws. It's quite another for a service member to use his or her position to publicly endorse a presidential candidate. In uniform, no less. That's exploitation of the military's power and reputation for political advantage, and undermines the idea of civilian control of the military under the commander in chief Many of the principles here are not much different from those in journalism. Reporters have their opinions, obviously, but the majority of them strive for objectivity in reporting. (Different from commentators who are paid to voice their opinions.) Imagine a reporter covering a presidential campaign making a public endorsement of one of the candidates.

Actually, thh United States military works quite hard to protect the rights of service men and women when it comes to political involvement and even advocacy, just not when they are on duty, in uniform even if not on duty, or in any way which allows them to trade on the military's prestige and/or authority.  It's a tough balancing act, and one they pull off pretty well.

For those commenters who are arguing that Thorsen's free speech was limited - it isn't a) him speaking at all or b) what he said. The problem was he did it in uniform. Outside the office I can say and do what I want - but I cannot say I am speaking on behalf of my company. By showing up in uniform, Thorsen was implicitly giving an endorsement that was greater than his own.

A fine summary, even though I disagree with the claim that by itself, and as an isolated, incident, any reasonable person would think that Thorsen was speaking for the military.  But that doesn't matter because the regulations are designed to keep us from ever gettting to that point.

No one is telling the members of the military they need to be apolitical, but showing up in a uniform to support a candidate for office shows incredibly poor judgement on the service member's behalf. The man was apparently an reservist who was not on active duty. If he's not currently active, why was he wearing his fatigues to begin with? I can understand if a reservist being in uniform going to/from his military responsibilities. This isn't the case here - he premeditarily put on his fatigues to go to the caucus and appear at a political rally. It also speaks poorly to the Paul campaign's management - either they used him as a "prop" since he was in fatigues, or they didn't know that they were putting him in a bad spot. Neither option is good. Flip this the other way - say a sitting president assembles a group of military leaders to support his candidacy while in uniform - that wouldn't be too different than Castro's military standing in support of "El Presidente". The fact is the military serves and answers up the chain of command. That ends at whomever is the commander in chief. 99.99% of our servicemen understand that and know that it's inappropriate to appear at a political rally.

I love your reference to "El Presidente"!  And all one need do is think of leaders fond of appearing in uniform as a sign of national solidariy and equality to see why it's a terrible idea.  Think Castro, Mao, Stalin, all of North Korea's leaders, and that's just to name a few.


Of course, to our credit, we have just the opposite in this country where our Commander In Chief has no military uniform because it's not technically a military position.  In fact, the only cabinet level position that has one of those is the Surgeon General, and they are Physicians!

Why is this even a question? The soldier broke known (and widely communicated/reinforced, esp. in an election season) military law. As a soldier and an American citizen, he is entitled to his opinions and his vote and, certainly, his civic voice. Just not when in uniform, given the likely perception of official sanction. I come from a military family, several brothers and sisters and uncles and a father that all served and voted and held opinions all over the political map. Not one questioned this aspect of military code. What's so hard to understand here?

Not so hard to understand, but an opportunity to reflect  both on how important that norm is, how unusual it is for most of the world, and how limiting speech at certain times and by certain people, is itself one of teh best guarantors of that very freedom.  Think of it as a significant teaching moment, if you like.

Weren't the rules for "Not Appearing in Uniform" a reaction to Ollie North's Iran-Cotra Testimony where he basically used his uniform for getting away with circumventing the Constitution?

Without re-hashing the entire Oliver North story or your assessment of it, these rules go back even farther than that.  You are correct that they were strengthened in teh years following the North sage.

Is there a regulation that prohibits a service member from appearing at political functions in uniform?

Those not on active duty and not in unform may certainly attend and participate in such rallies.  Once you gt beyond that, it gets more complicated.  Bottom line, whether considered "active" reserve or not, by showing up in uniform and actively participating in the rally, Cpl. Thorsen messed up.

Is there a precedent for this? Punishment seems a bit extreme, though when a soldier wears a uniform there is an assumption that he is somehow speaking officially.

Despite searching for a public record of a simialr case, I cannot find one.  I agree that if by punishment, anything which could have long term negative impact on the guy's career does seem overly-harsh.


Seems to me that we should agressively enforce laws which are desinged to protect against possible abuses of or politcal system, but only punish offenders of such laws based on the harm they actually did, not our fears of what their actions may lead to.

It appears that Jesse violated the military code regarding speaking at such an event in uniform? It may require some sort of minor reprimand, like a demotion, but definitely not discharge. I agree with the policy on uniforms, i think it's fine to introduce him as a "whatever rank" member of the armed services. My question is: Paul is an MD, ex-Congressperson and several times Presidential hopeful with, I assume, an intelligent staff. Has anyone in the media taken Paul and his staff to task as to how and why they let Jesse come on stage in uniform? Ignorance of the rule does not exonerate Jesse, but Paul and staff should have been aware of the situation and its ramifications and stopped him before going on stage.

They claim that it was a "spur of the moment" action taken in the excitment of the evening, and that is probably true.  Intelligence and degrees are often poor protections against giving in to our emotions, no?


But the fact is, they should at least admit that they out him on stage because he was in uniform and recognize that there are great reasons why that's a really poor idea.

Speaking at a political rally in uniform, nay even attending a political rally in uniform, is against everything you are taught and told to do in the military. Why should we even consider giving this soldier anything less than a letter of reprimand or article 15?

because both are pretty tough responses to what he did -- not to what the regs are meant to prevent, but to this one act.  there must be consequences, but they should be handed out carefully, especially given the range of far worse things that commanders let people get away with every day.

Participating in a partisan event while wearing the uniform is very much a punishable offense, and the Army is right to take this seriously. A professional military separate from political vagaries is a well-established, deeply-held value for our Country. Military personnel are entitled to vote and to privately support whomever they chose. They have NO right to give any appearance that the military supports an individual candidate.

yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.  does that cover it?

most importantly is your phrase that "the Army is right to take this seriously".  Taking seriously is not simply about punishing or not punishing -- it's about using this moment to remind soldiers of the great American tradition which celebrates both the existence of a powerful military and the firece committment to keeping it apolitical.  many nations do one or the other, but few do both, and argueably none do it as well as the United States.

Military members are under orders not to appear at political rallies when in uniform unless there under official duties (such as flag ceremonies or providing security.) And when in uniform, they are not to provide commentary without clearance from the appropriate military public affairs officer. Failure to do so is a crime under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The military has absolutely ZERO say when a military member in civilian garb participates in political events on his or her own time. Jesse could draw a courts martial for his crime. More likely his commander will offer him an Article 15, Non-Judicial Punishment, which could be up to a couple months base pay, the loss of a couple of stripes (reduction in military rank), couple of months incarceration, all of the above, some of the above, or suspended based on good behavior.

that's actually not correct.  even when not in uniform, peronel on active duty, must honor a great many limitations on their politcal behavior, as well they should.  while the uniform is a central concern, it is not the only concern.  the concern is about keeping the military from becoming a politcal tool held by any one group, party or person.

I spent 20 years in the National Guard and Reserves. We were instructed to wear our uniforms to and from training, during official meetings or events and at no other time. Following trainig we were supposed to return home and change into civilian clothing. I even know of soldiers who were reprimanded for wearing their uniform to dinner in a resteraunt when they were not on training status. Putting on the uniform and wearing it to a political rally, let alone speaking at the rally while in uniform would be an Article 15 offense at the very least. If Hirschfeld didn't know this, he somehow slept through the mandatory (basic training plus annual refresher) ethics training.

It's not what i don't know, but I appreciate your attributing it to sleep and not to stupidity!  it's about the fact that laws, reg's and directives are always interpreted and that the give and take around how we inerpret the relevent ones in this case, highlight a number of critical issues about free speech, it's ethics and its limitations.


Given how polarizing such conversations about these issues typically are -- creating lots of heat but shedding little light -- I welcomed the opportunity for a more serious and intelligent conversation.  Personally, I think we met the challenge.  Thanks to all of you!

There are so many more questions and comments, but it's been an hour and my fingers ache!!  :)


Thanks for participating and stay tuned for another installment next week.



In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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