Air Force reservist sues over punishment for 'political' remarks during off-duty speech

Cadets stand near their seats during the 2019 graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy on May 30, 2019, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Cadets stand near their seats during the 2019 graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy on May 30, 2019, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. | CHET STRANGE/AFP via Getty Images

A member of the U.S. Armed Forces is taking legal action against the Department of Defense and other officials after he was disciplined for remarks he made while in uniform at a private ceremony.

U.S. Air Force Reserve Jace Yarbrough, who had previously served on active duty and is an attorney in his civilian life, received a letter of admonishment for giving remarks while off duty at a retirement ceremony in 2021 that some deemed political in nature.

A complaint filed Tuesday on behalf of Yarbrough in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division accuses military officials of violating the reservists' rights.

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"This case arises from Defendants' decision to take adverse, disciplinary action against Plaintiff, Mr. Jace Yarbrough, solely for his private religious belief and private speech on matters of public concern," reads the complaint.

"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."

In June 2021, Yarbrough gave a speech while in uniform at a military retirement ceremony held at the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in which he spoke about his faith and his concern about politics in the military.

Yarbrough was concerned about a "culture war" within the Armed Forces and said "men can't birth babies" and that "boys should not be allowed in girls' locker rooms."

A member of the U.S. Navy who was present for the speech filed a complaint against Yarbrough, with the reservist receiving an admonishment letter reprimanding him for his remarks in August 2021. 

"The LOA condemned specific remarks, including his references to 'radical political
factions,' 'how the military is fostering a culture of 'incompetence and cowardice,’ and
'DoD-wide extremism training as a ‘thinly veiled flex of political power,'" the complaint reads.

"The LOA stated that Mr. Yarbrough’s expressed viewpoints were improper because
'[m]ilitary members are to remain apolitical and must respect the chain of command.'"

Attached to the letter of admonishment were witness statements. One witness noted that Yarbrough's "personal/religious views seemed to be in conflict with the rights of the LGBTQ community." Meanwhile, another stated that "his message had a religious tone to it."

Yarbrough is represented by the First Liberty Institute, the law firm Winston & Strawn, the Ave Maria School of Law Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic.

Antony Kolenc, director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic, said in a statement that "this cause is central to our mission" of "preserving religious liberty."

"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," stated Kolenc.

The U.S. Armed Forces has long limited the extent to which military personnel can wear uniforms and be involved in speech or events that are considered political in nature.

According to a 2008 Defense Department directive, "members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity" and "members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement."

The directive states that a military member cannot "Wear a uniform or use any Government property or facilities" when "taking part in local nonpartisan political activity."

Capt. Gregory Justis wrote in a May 2019 column on the Dover Air Force Base website that military personnel, including reservists, "are prohibited from engaging in any political activities while in their official capacity or in uniform."

"This includes marching in partisan political parades, distributing political literature and print material or engaging in any public commentary on political issues or campaigns," wrote Justis.

"Members must also use discretion when posting on social media about political topics while using a photo of themselves in uniform — again, the concern is tying the cause or the candidate to the Air Force."

Justis did note that "military members and civilians are free to engage in the political process; personnel may write letters to editors, participate in online blogging, march in parades or engage in politically charged speech – provided that they do so in an unofficial capacity."

Yarbrough's complaint contends that the military "has permitted members to engage in other kinds of political speech and expressive conduct while on activity duty, in uniform, and while using their military title and position."

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