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Loose lips: Free speech and the Canadian Forces
Submitted by admin on June 25, 2014 - 7:49am
The treatment of Canadian Forces veterans has been a difficult subject this past year. One story in particular caught a lot of attention — “Wounded soldiers told to sign form agreeing not to criticize military for their own good”, which first ran in September of 2013 in the Ottawa Citizen and The Star, and again in April of 2014 in The National Post.
This news item reported on allegations that wounded soldiers were required to sign a form essentially governing what they could or could not say to the public. It has since been confirmed that there is such a document, which was created in March 2013 and is given to soldiers transferring to the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU), a post-deployment casualty support system linking physically or mentally wounded soldiers to available services.
The form itself specifically addresses comments on social media and claims that, while neither the Canadian Armed Forces nor JPSU can dictate what forms of social media individuals can use, there may be disciplinary action for unprofessional behaviour or content. “It must be clearly understood,” the form states, “that the inappropriate use of social media can have serious ramifications for the CAF; it can erode public trust, cause serious breaches of security and destroy team cohesion.”
The form provides a list of do’s and don’ts to guide members on appropriate and inappropriate content:
- DO be aware that you are personally responsible for the content you post on your social networking sites;
- DO ensure that your profile and the content you post reflect positively on your role in the CAF and JPSU;
- DO avoid comments or topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory to the CAF and the JPSU;
- DO NOT make disparaging comments or remarks, or criticize your chain of command, your superiors, your peers or your subordinates;
- DO NOT write anything that might reflect discredit on the CAF/JPSU or write anything that might discourage others or make them dissatisfied with their conditions or their employment;
- DO NOT disclose any military information or your views on any military subject;
- DO be aware that you are responsible not only for the content that you post, but also the content of your friends in which you are “tagged”. This can include photos and comments which may present you or any associated activities in a negative context.
The story prompted a great deal of criticism, specifically regarding the legality of the form — particularly if the perception exists that it must be signed in order to receive treatment, which could be considered coercion. There is also the issue of requiring those with mental illnesses or injuries to sign a legally binding document holding them responsible for their actions and the actions of others. A constitutional question has been raised about whether the form violates the right to free speech.
This last point is of particular interest, as it is already a written and unwritten rule that soldiers don’t criticize the military while in uniform — a fundamental condition of good order and discipline. Every officer and non-commissioned member of the Canadian Armed Forces is required to understand and obey the National Defence Act, the Security of Information Act, Defence Administrative Orders and Directives and the Queens Regulations & Orders, among others. The form in question reiterates directives already in place in these documents.
How free can CF members truly be if they must follow such strict parameters? Are these speech limits fair? Where does this leave wounded soldiers and veterans — should they be required to continue following these rules?
The Queens Regulations and Orders have sections governing improper comments, the disclosure of information or opinion, permission to communicate information, communications to news agencies and communications to other government departments. The Defence Administrative Orders and Directives (DOADs) include sections on the internal use of social media technologies and the defence ethics program.
The strong language in these directives is similar to the form; the Queens Regulations and Orders, for example, state that no member shall make remarks or pass criticism tending to bring a superior into contempt, and no member shall do or say anything that might reflect discredit on the CF or on any of its members, or might discourage them or render them dissatisfied with their duties.
When it comes to speaking to the media, CF members enjoy a little more leeway. The Queens Regulations and Orders allow an officer to speak to journalists on subjects under the officer’s command — as long as the comments do not involve “enunciation, defence or criticism, expressed or implied, of service, departmental or government policy”.
As one online commentator on The National Post story explained, “as a member of the Army, it has been policy over the last couple of decades that you could speak to the media as long as you stayed within your lanes i.e. speak about issues that were unclassified and that you specifically understood or were responsible for. If I was asked for my opinion, for example, of base housing, I could speak to my own experience in my base house. Not base housing in general, but my experience. I continue to enjoy free speech, never surrendered that right.”
It’s nothing less than a triumph that military members are allowed to speak “within their lanes”. But how free can they truly be if they must follow such strict parameters? Are these speech limits fair? Where does this leave wounded soldiers and veterans — should they be required to continue following these rules?
Of the members which use the services offered by the JPSU, some will return to the force and others will retire. Although people within the military feel there is a clear line between being in and out, there’s still a grey area here. If it’s clear that these members are still governed by the listed directives, why are they being asked to sign another form on improper comments — and why are some refusing?
What options do these soldiers have if their needs are not being met? Could this form be viewed as a means of keeping quiet those that might have the most to say?
Trying to understand the intentions behind the form is key. According to JPSU representative statements, the purpose of the form is educational and protective, offering guidance while still respecting rights and freedoms. When contacted for comment, Col. Gerard Blais, commander of the JPSU, said, ”It is in everyone’s interest, military and civilian, to be reminded of the realities of social media. For those who are seriously ill and injured and on a complex journey of recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration or transition, appropriate use of social media can be a positive contributor to their wellness. Upon joining the unit, all members of the JPSU receive information and briefs regarding policies and directives related to behaviour and conduct. This includes appropriate and inappropriate use of social media. The command team ensures new members are reminded of Government of Canada, Department of National Defence and CAF policy.”
Why so much control? It should be understood that there has existed for some time in the military an inherent distrust towards the media — and there’s much historical context for this caution. The media can have its own agenda, and may portray military members and their messages in a manner which fits that agenda, even if it’s inaccurate. This is particularly true in the world of social media, where context is easily lost. It is also possible the media may release information of a delicate or personal nature as part of the story, and cause irrevocable damage. For example, if a soldier’s medical issues are discussed as a backgrounder to a story about poor services, it might harm that soldier’s recovery or limit him or her in future endeavours.
Unfortunately, cases do exist in which soldiers have acted unprofessionally and irresponsibly, leading to embarrassment and, in some cases, security breaches (for example, former former brigadier-general Daniel Ménard and Jeffrey Delisle). Cpl Bloggins is a controversial website and Facebook page originally believed to have started at the base in Petawawa, which contains derogatory and homophobic comments about other military personnel and insults particular regiments and soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. Military Social Media Idiots is a Facebook group which highlights inappropriate photos put up by American military members and opens the floor to harsh commentary by anyone who is a group member. Their tag line: “If you are wearing a uniform, don’t post pictures of yourself that will disgrace the uniform.”
Finally, there’s always the risk that a member might reach out to these media sources to promote personal interests. The notion that these regulations can serve as protective should not be dismissed entirely.
If these forms are doing good by protecting soldiers from the media, or protecting the military from members out for themselves, then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize. But if wounded veterans are struggling and are not being heard, then these orders may be causing an incredible level of harm.
Many, however, do not feel that form is at all for anyone’s benefit, but a blatant attempt by the government to crack down and limit bad publicity. NDP Defence Critic Jack Harris said that “to single out ill and injured soldiers and require them to sign this form is tantamount to saying, ‘Don’t complain.’” Ottawa lawyer and former military officer Michel Drapeau said the form is an obvious attempt to intimidate those who were injured and prevent them from speaking out about ill treatment: “It’s not illegal but it’s obviously a threat. The criticism about the leadership’s failure to take care of the wounded is obviously hitting home.”
CDA Institute Board member and retired public affairs Colonel Brett Boudreau had this to say: “This is a classic response by an organization that lacks self-confidence in their programs and efforts to date. If they actually believed their own hype about how good their programs are, they would presumably let the beneficiaries of the program speak about their experiences.”
Retired Air Force officer Sean Bruyea described the form as something right out of the Soviet era. “I think there is also a deeper psychological dimension of harm,” he said. “Those speaking out in uniform do not do so lightly. Deep military indoctrination instills an absolute loyalty to government, which is unfortunately far too often not reciprocated. Overcoming this indoctrination to speak out requires a profound sense of injustice. This gag order approach is clearly not for the soldiers’ benefit but for the PR self-interest of commanding officers who are failing to address the underlying systemic problems. Speaking out is not the cause of the problem but the symptom of internal senior leadership failures. If those failures are rectified, military members would not need to speak out to the media.”
In the end, it must be expected that, when in uniform, one is a soldier first and a citizen second, and therefore different rights and responsibilities apply. Whether the current set of rules and regulations is adequate or appropriate goes beyond the scope of this piece. However, it’s worthwhile to question the consequences of these orders — the good versus the harm. If these forms are doing good by protecting soldiers from the media, or protecting the military from members out for themselves, then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize.
But if wounded veterans are struggling and are not being heard, then these orders may be causing an incredible level of harm. It’s important to address the root of the problem, not just cover up the symptoms. Our veterans deserve no less.
Meaghan Hobman is an analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, which first published this piece. She is a recent graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, completing a master’s degree in war studies with a specialization in intelligence. She also holds an honours bachelor degree from the University of Ottawa in political science and English.
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