Air Force Gets Sued for Violating Reservist's Free Speech Rights for Quoting Solzhenitsyn Off-Duty
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A federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday accusing the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Space Force of punishing a reservist for criticizing the U.S. military at a private event.
For making the off-duty remarks as a private citizen at a retirement ceremony, the reservist was issued a Letter of Admonishment (LOA) by his superior.
In early 2021, Space Force Reservist Jace Yarbrough was invited to participate in the retirement ceremony of a fellow servicemember onboard the privately owned and operated Battleship Missouri Memorial, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, according to a press release from his legal representatives with the First Liberty Institute, the law firm Winston & Strawn, and the Ave Maria School of Law Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic.
Yarbrough was there to recognize SMSgt Duane Fish's honorable service and delivered his remarks in uniform to a small group of like-minded friends and family. Yarbrough traveled, attended, and spoke at Fish's retirement ceremony at his own expense and as a friend and private citizen.
The Air Force later issued Yarbrough an LOA after some military members who attended the ceremony complained about the content of his address, which included quotes from Soviet dissident and Christian Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and addressed public concerns regarding the present state of the U.S. military culture that's breeding "incompetence and cowardice."
During his speech at that private event, Yarbrough talked about the duty to speak up against "cancel culture" and other evils of our day. He delivered the following quote from a Solzhenitsyn play:
"To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail. You can resolve to
live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world,
let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual
is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world. In keeping
silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the
surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future."
"We've entered dangerous territory if the Air Force thinks it can punish Jace for his private religious exercise and private speech while acting as a private citizen in a private venue," Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute Danielle Runyan said in a statement. "In his purely civilian capacity, Jace had permission to speak freely and exercise his U.S. Constitutional and federally protected rights as an American citizen."
"The Air Force's punishment of Jace is a perfect example of the very cancel culture he warned about in his speech," Runyan added.
According to the 48-page complaint, Yarbrough received the letter from his supervisor at his civilian home in Texas, alleging that his remarks had been "insubordinate, disrespectful, and unbecoming of an officer in the military."
"Despite multiple administrative appeals up the chain of command, Defendants refused to rescind the discipline, which will continue to have a significant negative impact on Mr. Yarbrough's military and civilian careers," the lawsuit said.
The complaint also argues, "the LOA complained of herein was issued against Mr. Yarbrough' in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations' under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(C). Defendants have not cited any statutory authorization that would permit military discipline against Mr. Yarbrough for his activities while in a purely civilian status."
It continues, "Mr. Yarbrough's remarks during SMSgt Fish's retirement ceremony were a direct exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs and duties . . . . and Defendants violated the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by issuing the LOA to Mr. Yarbrough for the content of his remarks."
"That Mr. Yarbrough wore a uniform at the time he made his remarks is insufficient to establish jurisdiction, as no statute grants Defendants jurisdictional authority simply because a person wears a uniform. Defendants' own regulations permit civilians to wear military uniforms on occasion. See, e.g., AFI 36-2903, para 11.1.2 (authorizing a reservist in civilian status to wear the uniform during 'occasions of military ceremonies' and 'social functions and informal gatherings of a military nature')," the court document said.
Yarbrough said his faith forbids him "from quietly assenting to what I know to be false."
"As the totalizing claims of radical progressivism devour more and more of our common life and institutions, even prosaic, obvious, and natural truths are vilified as harmful and extreme. I did not seek out this fight, but my faith forbids me from quietly assenting to what I know to be false," he said in a statement. "As a Christian, I will not live by lies, even if it means I am no longer allowed to serve in uniform the country that I love, which has been one of the singular privileges of my life."
Antony Kolenc, associate clinical professor of Law and director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic at Ave Maria Law, noted in a statement that as a Catholic law school, "This cause is central to our mission."
"Our clinical students have been inspired by Jace's courage to take a stand for the rights of military reservists. We hope this case will help stop the erosion of First Amendment protections in the U.S. Armed Forces," the statement concluded.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Texas, Sherman division.
CBN News reached out to the Air Force for comment. In an emailed response, a spokesperson for the Air Force Public Affairs Office said, "We do not comment on pending litigations.”
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