Article Title

Political Speech in the Armed Forces: Shouting Fire in a Crowded Cyberspace

Publication Title

Washington University Jurisprudence Review


A staple of the American version of democracy is civilian control of the military: we are uncomfortable with politicization of the Armed Forces, and military and other federal laws restrict the political expression of servicemembers (“SMs”) in the Armed Forces, whether they are active- duty members or National Guard or Reserves serving on active duty. These restrictions, while well-intentioned to prevent actual or apparent political partisanship or bias within the military, have the undesired effect of deterring SMs from otherwise healthy political expression. With the advent of the internet and proliferation of social media use, questions regarding SM status and identification with the military complicate the political participation of citizen-soldiers. The presence of over-reaching restrictions on political expression and lack of clear guidance dictating what political expression SMs can and cannot make in online forums have several effects. First, this framework of acceptable political discourse contributes to a breakdown of the ‘citizen-soldier’ ideal that is peculiar to the American conception of military service in a democracy. Second, this framework tends to deprive SMs of their personal and political autonomy in a manner that tends to reduce them to a position of vassalage. Third, this reinforces the ‘tyranny of majority opinion’ that John Stuart Mill presciently warned of at a time when militaries were professionalizing.

Lastly, this framework contributes to the isolation of the military from general society by removing military voices from the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ thereby depriving the public discourse of a crucial segment of the American population. While partisan political expression in online forums is a relatively new phenomenon, it is merely an extension of every citizen’s right to engage in public debate, and to the extent that SMs are prohibited or deterred from political expression through legal restrictions rather than professional and ethical norms, their right to exercise the duties of citizenship is infringed, to their detriment and that of the body politic.