Freedom of speech is not freedom to speak

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Andrew Ridenhower
  • 71st Mission Support Group superintendent
"Just because you can say it, doesn't mean you should." That's a great motto to live by and one that has served me well for my first 28 years of military service -- when I was smart enough to follow it.

The military not only recommends refraining from certain forms of speech, it expressly prohibits it. We have rules, laws and codes that cover all forms of speech for all categories of service while supporting the Department of Defense and the Air Force. There are rules that govern some form of our speech whether we are active duty, reserve, civil service or contract member.

The most stringent rules govern speech by members in uniform. Our guidance is geared toward maintaining good order and discipline, keeping us neutral in political views and maintaining a sound image in the eyes of the citizens who pay our salaries. It's that last one I'd like to talk about -- the military image painted by our words.

Military members are bound by military rule of law, including customs and courtesies, 24/7, any place on earth - and in space for that matter. Our rules and guidance have no bounds and what we say is intrinsically ours. If we say it, we own it.

When we repeat derogatory, racial or gender-based epithets we hear from comedians, musical artists or authors, they become our words. Saying "it's just a song," or "it's an expression of speech," is not a defense in the legal realm or in the Equal Opportunity office. You own it.

Checklists are one thing we do well. Let's run one on public image.

Does what we're saying fall in line with the policies and directives of the Air Force? Do they represent me or my profession well? Could they be misunderstood and easily taken out of context?

Would the taxpaying public approve of such talk or behavior? Are we properly representing our team, our base or the Air Force? Could we stand the scrutiny of our words placed in a public forum for all to view?

That last checklist item has caused more angst than any of the others.

Look no further than YouTube to find unfortunate consequences of saying things we shouldn't. Countless people have been removed from office, reprimanded or fired due to comments recorded on a cell phone and immediately flashed to any one of several video host sites.

Once posted, a video no longer belongs to the sender; it belongs to the site domain owner. Nearly every person with a cell phone has video or picture capability. If they're like my kids, it's only a matter of seconds before antics are captured.

Once captured, we lose the ability to place our words or actions in context or to defend them. They stand on their own to the viewer. Now that's something to ponder before we decide to spit out a few comments or phrases that should have been left unsaid.

If we remember that we represent all of Total Team Vance with our words, we'll do fine. We've all had less than stellar moments, yours truly included, where we look back and realize we probably didn't represent well by something we said. Hopefully those moments are minor.

As military members we should always remember that as one of us goes, we all go. When we have a bad moment in the face of the public, the public sees me, you, our wing commander, everyone. It is usually the serious acts or words of a few that results in all of us taking heat.

When that happens, regardless of your affiliation to the person or the act, step up and say something, take action, be a Wingman. If you can, stop it. If you can't, let your supervisor, an appropriate base agency or me know. Tell someone.

Our image rests with you, and when I say you, I mean all of us. Our image is extremely valuable and deserves protecting.