Freedom at Military Academies

I’m sure plenty of people saw the irony in the New York Times report about the invitation of retired Lt. Gen William G. Boykin to speak at a West Point prayer breakfast, where “civil liberties advocates…called on the Military Academy to rescind the invitation.” Obviously, it is very odd for anyone concerned about civil liberties to call for a campus speaker to be dis-invited, and the idea of it troubles me deeply.

It’s true that Boykin himself has no respect for free speech, and has argued that Islam “should not be protected under the first amendment.” But I fiercely defend the First Amendment rights of everyone, including those who hate the First Amendment.

It’s also true that Boykin “has decided to withdraw speaking at West Point’s National Prayer Breakfast” and was not technically banned. Still, he withdrew under pressure, and plenty of people wanted him to be banned. I don’t. I think Boykin should be free to speak at every college in America, and every student should be free to criticize him.

Unfortunately, that’s not true at West Point. The New York Times story quoted “a fourth-year cadet at West Point, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals for breaking military discipline.” At any other college, a student who had to remain anonymous in order to make fairly bland observations about a campus speaker would be regarded as a victim of terrible censorship. Why should West Point be allowed to suppress freedom under the guise of patriotism?

It’s also strange that no one is questioning the bizarre idea of a public college organizing prayer breakfasts. West Point’s spokesperson declared that the breakfast “will be pluralistic with Christians, Jewish and Muslim cadets participating.” That does sound very pluralistic, unless you’re an atheist (or one of the minor religions deemed too unimportant to be appeased). The presence of religious leaders in the military is justified by the necessity of meeting the religious needs of soldiers on the battlefield. But West Point is a public college, not a battlefield. Students should be perfectly free to attend any religious services they wish. Speakers should be free to discuss religion in any way they want to. However, the administration of a public college has no business organizing prayer breakfasts.

It’s time to end the double standards, and start treating military cadets with the same respect and freedom all students deserve. If we want excellent military leaders, we need to give them the freedom in college to question and debate ideas. If we ask soldiers to defend our freedom, then we should defend their freedom in college, and reject the idea of infringing upon the liberty of students simply because they choose military service.

3 thoughts on “Freedom at Military Academies

  1. That West Point Cadet (student) is attending a school that has strong and strict academic, moral and physical standards. These standards extend to their conduct, not only as a student, but as a soldier in the United States Army. Although I understand your stance on this student’s first ammendment rights, his speaking openly is restricted because he is first and foremost a soldier in the United States Army. His words spoken as a student at West Point would, in turn, be viewed by some as either a political statement or personal opinion. When you wear the uniform, unfortunately you give up some of your rights, and certain speech would be one right that is governed by the Army.

  2. Why should soldiers have to give up their free speech rights, particularly when they are in college rather than in any kind of military engagement? Obviously, some speech needs to be regulated by the military: you may need to maintain obedience to commands by superiors, and security requires keeping some secrets about military activities. But in general, I think we have a better military when our soldiers have more free speech. Repression discourages some people from joining the military, and it tends to harm military operations. Freedom is even more necessary on a college campus, and if the military won’t ease its rules for active-duty soldiers, it ought to make a clear exception for cadets in ROTC and at military academies. We already expect the civilian faculty at West Point and other military academies to have academic freedom; why shouldn’t military cadets receive similar guarantees of freedom? Perhaps in olden days, the military needed mindless obedience, but today’s military requires leaders who can be skeptical and questioning. We need more free speech for soldiers, for their benefit and for ours.

  3. If a Cadet’s opinions are contrary to Army policy or doctrine, that will not be acceptable. For example, if a Cadet would come out and say that he doesn’t want any gay men to be in the military, and openly states this to a local newspaper, or posts it to Facebook, he is in clear defiance of policy. Or, opinions about any other Army policy or military action, such as the wars they may be participating in. It has many affects on many levels, to include unit cohesion, and it damages the morale and effectiveness (esprit de corps) of the Army. If you were ever in the Military, you would understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. It would be like an employee stating their opinion of the company, its policies, or comments about the motivational speaker the company wanted brought in for a seminar. Even freedom of speech has its limitations, no matter where it is expressed.

    In your response, you are mixing two facets of speech. One form of speech is opinion, the other is participatory/democratic involvement. I’ve spoken to the opinion piece. Let me share with you the latter.

    Autocratic leadership had been the standard in the military. But, the military has realized, gradually over the last couple of decades that kind of leadership style is somewhat archaic. It is becoming less top-down and hierarchical leadership structure. Think about the military, in total, as a leadership organization where you invite participatory involvement in decision-making; where people at every level, from the sides and the bottom, have a voice and a view, and are permitted and encouraged to provide feedback. If you delegate more, if there is more distributed decision-making, then you see an organization that is a ‘leader organization.’ That is exactly what is happening in today’s military.

    Soldiers throughout the ranks are developed to be leaders at their respective levels. The military of today allows for the freedom to discuss a task or mission, and the way to go about accomplishing that mission. But, to express one’s opinion may have consequences that the Army would prefer to avoid.

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