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Midshipman sues Naval Academy, claims looming expulsion for racist tweets violates his free speech rights

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A midshipman facing expulsion after an investigation into racist tweets he sent over the summer sued the Naval Academy Wednesday, claiming it is violating his constitutional rights of free speech and a fair and impartial hearing.

The Naval Academy opened an investigation into Midshipman 1st Class Chase Standage, 21, of California after he tweeted several racist statements, including saying Breonna Taylor received justice when police shot her, over the summer.

Other tweets, all of which are included as exhibits in the lawsuit, included statements criticizing defunding the police and calling for a drone strike on protesters described as antifa, a term used to describe left-leaning individuals who resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists, sometimes through violence.

“Go ahead, cut funds to the police,” Standage tweeted in response to a tweet calling for defunding police instead of more money for community policing. “Community policing by building relations is expensive and timely, anyways. Bullets, on the other hand, are cheap and in ready supply (shrugging emoji).”

A few days later, he tweeted “All it takes is one drone strike… (sic)” in response to a tweet from conservative media personality Andy Ngo about antifa protesters in Seattle.

Standage tweeted the statements and others as an overreaction because his parents, both officers with Los Angeles Police Department during protests in the city, and because President Donald Trump, referred to by the commander-in-chief multiple times in the lawsuit, declared antifa as terrorists, according to the lawsuit.

The investigation ended last week with the Standage receiving “appropriate administrative action,” academy spokesperson Cmdr. Alana Garas told The Capital. Garas said she could not expand on the details of the action or confirm if Standage was still a member of the brigade, citing the Privacy Act.

In his lawsuit, the midshipman claims Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck plans to recommend to the secretary of the Navy that Standage be separated from the Naval Academy. It names Buck and Navy Secretary Kenneth J. Braithwaite. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will represent the Navy.

“We are aware of the filing; it would be inappropriate for the Naval Academy to comment on pending litigation,” Garas wrote in an email.

The basis for the recommendation is that Standage’s tweets violated the Naval Academy’s policies against political activities and “constituted conduct unbecoming a midshipman,” a charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

Standage’s Annapolis attorneys, Crighton Chase and Michael Darrow, argue that the findings violate the First Amendment protection of free speech. They also claim that Standage was not given a fair and impartial hearing, which would violate his Fifth Amendment.

Chase, Darrow and Standage did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit includes Commandant of Midshipmen Notice 5720, which lays out political activities regulations for midshipmen, in its exhibits.

Notice 5720 specifically lays out policy for political activity on social media. It allows midshipmen to express personal views on public issues or political candidates on social media platforms as long as the post is clear that it is the personal views of the midshipman and not of the Department of Defense. Standage’s Twitter account has since been deactivated, and it is unclear if he identified himself as a Naval Academy midshipman.

“As always, members of the military must also be careful not to comment, post, or link to material that violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) or service regulation,” according to the Notice 5720.

Standage agued to the Naval Academy command, the lawsuit claims, that his tweets were not political and were protected under the First Amendment. In the lawsuit, Chase and Darrow write that Standage’s tweets were responses to heated exchanges on Twitter. Standage was at home watching the protests in Los Angeles when he sent his tweets.

The lawsuit also claims that because the Naval Academy leadership has made comments about systemic racism and making the institution more diverse and inclusive that they could not fairly judge Standage’s conduct.

“It is supremely ironic that MIDN Standage faces separation for expressing ‘political’ views that were nothing of the kind, while the Command is imposing an oppressive political ideology on the Brigade of Midshipmen that seeks to chill free speech and punish any midshipman who does not actively ‘get with the program,’” according to the lawsuit.

In showing that Buck and Capt. Thomas R. Buchanan, Commandant of Midshipman, have embraced anti-racism and tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, the lawsuit includes tweets from the commandant’s daughter and mother.

The lawsuit claims that it does not question the superintendent’s or his command’s view on racism as the issue.

“Rather, it is the Command’s monolithic insistence as to what constitutes racism (sic), a subject of enormous debate across the Country, and its insistence that people like MIDN Standage are not entitled to weigh in on that issue without being branded as a racist, that is the viewpoint discrimination raised by MIDN Standage in this Complaint,” according to the lawsuit.

One of the central questions of the lawsuit is if the Naval Academy leadership has the right to define what constitutes racist conduct, said attorney Joseph Donahue, a Naval Academy graduate who practices law in Annapolis. He would argue that it does, and he is in favor of seeing the institution adopt more antiracism views.

And if the Navy and the Naval Academy determine that working to eliminate racism is part of the academy’s mission to produce well-qualified officers, that is in their purview to do so, not the midshipmen.

“When you go to the Naval Academy, when you sign up, when you take the oath, you are agreeing that you are going to be a part of the fulfillment of that mission,” said Donahue, who recently settled a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Annapolis and the Annapolis Housing authority claiming discrimination.

The lawsuit also questions whether the statements were political and if they violate the social media policy, Donahue said. Standage and his attorneys argue his statements were not political and that he did not tweet in his position as a midshipman.

“And as soon as you start pushing those boundaries, I mean, this midshipman, I’m sure knew that when he’s posting about Breonna Taylor and some of these issues, he’s saying things that are, at least attention-grabbing, they’re something that puts him, puts him out. He’s taking a position,” Donahue said. “So then he’s leaving the Naval Academy to then interpret whether or not he was taking a position officially or unofficially.”

The lawsuit comes as the Naval Academy, and the country, continue to address systemic racism. In September, Buck released comments on racism at the academy, encouraging members to watch a video put together by the Midshipman Diversity Team.

“As I reflect on the past couple of months since the tragic death of George Floyd, I have been encouraged by the Academy’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni who understand the importance of diversity to our mission,” Buck said in his statement. “At the same time, I am not naïve in thinking that bigotry and racism do not exist, to some extent, within our Naval Academy family.”

The academy will be taking steps to better increase diversity and inclusion at the institution, including several discussions and including it in the curriculum for the plebe class, The Capital previously reported. The academy declined to expand on the efforts.

“I believe — as I hope you do — that fostering an environment of dignity and respect here at the Naval Academy is essential to our mission of developing future leaders of character for the Navy and Marine Corps,” Buck wrote. “As the Superintendent, it is my responsibility to ensure that our community is safe, welcoming, and inclusive for all, but I cannot do this alone. It must be a team effort.”


© 2020 The Baltimore Sun

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