THE WORDS of the Supreme Court were impressive last Monday when it upheld regulations requiring members of the armed forces to get approval from their commanders before circulating literature around their bases. Such regulations, it said, are necessary to protect loyalty, discipline and morale.Without reviewing these written materials in advance, the court said, "a military commander could not avert possible disruptions among his troops."
You might think from those remarks that the court had been confronted with literature urging rebellion or, at least, disobedience. But no. What it had before it were two cases involving petitions to members of Congress, petitions that dealt with the grooming standards of the Air Force, amnesty for draft-resisters, the use of military personnel in labor disputes and the support being given to the government of South Korea. Hardly the stuff of sedition and desertion.
But the circulation of that petition complaining about the grooming standards -- a mildly worded document as petitions go -- cost an Air Force captain his military career. He was relieved from duty for failing to get advance permission to ask to sign it. And a Marine base commander in Japan refused to let those petitions about draft-resistors and labor disputes be circulated although, curiously, he permitted circulation of the petition protesting the South Korean government.
These episodes demonstrate how easily government's (legimate) interest in maintaining loyalty and discipline of military personnel can be distorted. Nobody wants military bases inundated with political propaganda or inflammatory material encouraging disobedience or desertion. And nobody wants troops bothered with distractions in combat zones. But the circulation of petitions on bases in California and Japan constitutes neither kind of threat. Requiring such petitions to be "cleared" in advance cuts more deeply into the basic right of all Americans to communicate with Congress -- including even military personnel, whose rights are limited.
The Air Force officer and the Marines could not have gotten into trouble if they had been content to write individual letters setting out their requests and to ask -- but not in writing -- their colleagues to do the same. Thirty years ago Congress passed a law protecting letter-writers after it learned of a sailor who had been threatened with a court-martial if he were to ask his congressman for help in getting a hardship discharge. It should now pass a law telling both the military and the Supreme Court that there is an insufficient difference between an individual letter and a group letter -- even if it is called a petition -- to justify this advance screening.