Judge Won’t Wade Into Naval Academy Expulsion Over Tweets

A social distancing sign is seen on the floor as a midshipman walks to class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CN) — A federal judge dismissed a civil rights case brought by a midshipman challenging his Naval Academy expulsion over offensive social media posts about the police shooting of a Black woman, finding it’s too early for a court to weigh in.

Chase Standage, a 21-year-old white midshipman hoping for a career as a fighter pilot, was widely condemned on social media in June after he tweeted that Breonna Taylor, killed by police in a botched drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky, “received justice” on the night she was shot and that Antifa protesters and rioters are “terrorists.”

“Go ahead, cut funds to the police,” he tweeted. “Community policing by building relations is expensive and timely, anyways. Bullets, on the other hand, are cheap and in ready supply.”

The U.S. Naval Academy’s superintendent recommended Standage be disenrolled over the tweets. He sued in Maryland federal court in September to stop his expulsion.

“At issue is the Academy’s monolithic adoption of, and insistence upon, unilateral positions with respect to vitally important issues of public concern and the extent to which any or all of those issues evoke the specter of racism,” according to the lawsuit filed by Crighton Chase of the Annapolis-based firm Hillman, Brown & Darrow and Grasonville attorney Jeffrey McFadden.

Standage claims his pending removal is a violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights, and that movements like Black Lives Matter “demand recognition as the sole arbiters of what does or does not constitute ‘racial insensitivity’ or ‘racism’ in this country.’”

“Those tenets have been embraced by the Naval Academy’s senior leadership and have made their pernicious assault on the First Amendment manifest through the disposition of MIDN Standage’s conduct case and the superintendent’s separation recommendation,” the complaint states.

But in a 59-page opinion issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander in Annapolis found the civil rights claims were premature because Standage had not exhausted the administrative process for contesting his discharge. 

“The charges were administrative, brought by Naval Academy officials pursuant to the framework outlined in the conduct manual,” she wrote. “Although plaintiff faces the draconian sanction of discharge, he has not alleged a loss of liberty as a result of these proceedings.” 

Finding the case is not ripe for review, the Barack Obama-appointed judge said Standage’s claims that the removal recommendation will be accepted are “pure conjecture.”

Hollander denied Standage’s motion for a permanent injunction to stop the academy from discharging him and dismissed his complaint without prejudice, meaning he could sue again after his disciplinary proceedings.

Lawyers for Standage and the Naval Academy did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

While she didn’t rule the merits of the case, Hollander’s opinion cited a November memo from the Naval Academy’s superintendent, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, who said 40 tweets sent by Standage over the course of eight days featured “crude, incendiary commentary” that was picked up national news outlets as the posts went viral.

“As a first class midshipman at USNA who has had three years of training and instruction on Navy standards and leadership expectations, MIDN Standage should have known that the manner in which he was publicly commenting on sensitive topics would be perceived as offensive and inflammatory, seriously compromising his standing as a midshipman,” Buck wrote. 

Buck’s report also cited a tweet from Standage that suggested using drone strikes on Antifa protesters in Seattle. 

“This is highly inappropriate based on his trusted position as a member of the armed forces and future naval officer who could be called upon to support civil authorities,” he wrote. 

Standage’s lawsuit came at a pivotal time for the U.S. military, as multiple branches have publicly worked to distance themselves from claims of systemic racism. The military began taking steps this summer to bar the display of the Confederate flag used by the South during the Civil War on all public spaces, including ships and installations. 

“The order is meant to ensure unit cohesion, preserve good order and discipline, and uphold the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment,” Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday tweeted in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

The Department of Defense has also set parameters for acceptable social media use and punishments for violations.  

“Ethical behavior is required, both in official and unofficial use, and when using social media; for example, an employee may not post material to social media in either official or unofficial capacity that would constitute any kind of harassment (e.g., discriminatory or sexual), hate, bullying, hazing, retaliation or reprisal,” the policy states.

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the First Amendment advocacy group Public Citizen, said there’s a long tradition of deference to military decision making in litigation. Offering his views as a litigator, not on behalf of Public Citizen, Levy said some of Standage’s comments were beyond the pale. 

“This is speech for which I personally disapprove, but speech for which I approve is also subject to that constraint,” Levy said in a phone interview.

“And there’s some speech in this dispute where the military might be justified in saying is unacceptable in a member of the service,” he added, pointing to the drone strike tweet in particular.   

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