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Air Force reservist sues military branches for reprimand over private comments on 'cancel culture'

“Ordinary Americans, including our Airmen, are at risk of losing their livelihoods for saying things that, until yesterday, were matters of basic common sense and wisdom,” Major Jace Yarbrough said in a speech.

Published: October 4, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 5, 2023 5:56pm

An Air Force Reserve officer is suing the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Space Force in federal court after they officially reprimanded him for making private comments at a private function about “cancel culture” permeating the military.

Major Jace Yarbrough, an Air Force reservist assigned to the Space Force, received a written admonishment for talking about “cancel culture” in the military. Yarbrough says he believes that disciplinary action is already negatively affecting his career. He filed a lawsuit on Tuesday with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to have the reprimand rescinded, arguing that his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion were violated.

Yarbrough was issued a Letter of Admonishment (LOA) in August 2021 for remarks he gave as a civilian at a private retirement ceremony for a fellow service member in June, the lawsuit states.

He attended the ceremony at his own expense and wore his military uniform at the event in his civilian capacity, which is allowed while at “occasions of military ceremonies” and “social functions and informal gatherings of a military nature,” the lawsuit notes, citing Air Force regulations.

The LOA was issued after “a Navy member who was present filed a complaint that made its way to Mr. Yarbrough’s Air Force chain of command,” according to the lawsuit.

“The LOA reprimanded Mr. Yarbrough for his retirement ceremony remarks, made while in civilian status, and stated that Mr. Yarbrough’s speech had been ‘insubordinate, disrespectful, and unbecoming for an officer in the military,’” the filing later adds.

Technically, Yarbrough was "admonished", not "reprimanded", which each have different meanings under USAF regulations.

“The LOA condemned specific remarks, including his references to 'radical political factions,’ ‘how the military is fostering a culture of “incompetence and cowardice,”’ and ‘DoD-wide extremism training as a “thinly veiled flex of political power,”’” the lawsuit continues.

In Yarbrough’s speech, he warned how “the totalizing claims of a radical political faction within our wider culture have broken into our military.” He later added that this faction uses “cancel culture.”

“Ordinary Americans, including our Airmen, are at risk of losing their livelihoods for saying things that, until yesterday, were matters of basic common sense and wisdom,” Yarbrough continued. "Things like, ‘men can’t birth babies,’ and ‘boys should not be allowed in the girls locker room.’”

His speech also included a quote from the play “A Candle in the Wind,” by Soviet dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which said in part, "To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail. You can resolve to live your life with integrity."

An inquiry into Yarbrough’s remarks was conducted following the complaint that was filed by the Navy member. The LOA included statements from six witnesses that were obtained in the inquiry, some of whom had positive comments about his speech. One witness “found the speech to be ‘professional and respectful,’” while "two other witnesses understood the speech as an expression of Mr. Yarbrough’s religious beliefs,” according to the lawsuit.

However, “The LOA referenced ‘several military members expressing displeasure with the contents of [Mr. Yarbrough’s] speech,’” the lawsuit reads.

Some of the statements included in the LOA said, according to the lawsuit, “members were offended by the guest speakers comments” and “that there were some inappropriate comments made by the guest speaker at the subject event targeted at the LGBT community and other political issues currently taking place in our country.”

The LOA didn’t identify any specific military code that Yarbrough allegedly violated, but simply said he was to “exercise better judgement and use appropriate venues for expressing personal views that align and comport with AFI 51-508 and AFI 1-1 for exercising [his] free speech rights,” the lawsuit reads.

USAF regulations do not require citation to a specific military code in a Letter of Reprimand. They do, however, require telling the airman what they did or failed to do, citing specific incidents and their dates, what improvement is expected, and a warning that further deviation may result in more severe action. Recipients of an LOA have three duty days to submit documents for consideration, which will become part of the record. 

Yarbrough appealed the LOA four times, with the last denial issued “on behalf of the current Chief of Space Operations,” according to the lawsuit. The first denial was cited “AFI 36-2907 as granting the Air Force jurisdiction over Mr. Yarbrough while in civilian status,” the filing reads.

The subsequent appeals “were denied without much substantive explanation or sufficient legal reasoning,” First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Danielle Runyan, who represents Yarbrough, told Just the News on Wednesday. The First Liberty Institute says it is "the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans."

“We’ve entered dangerous territory if the Air Force thinks it can punish Jace for his private religious exercise and private speech while acting as a private citizen in a private venue,” Runyan said in a statement on Tuesday. “In his purely civilian capacity, Jace had permission to speak freely and exercise his U.S. Constitutional and federally protected rights as an American citizen. The Air Force’s punishment of Jace is a perfect example of the very cancel culture he warned about in his speech.”

The lawyers for Yarbrough declined to provide Just the News with a copy of the LOA.

“The LOA in his record also increases the risk of future, more severe adverse action, including increasingly severe administrative reprimands, relief for cause from leadership positions, denial of promotion, removal from promotion lists, and perhaps even criminal prosecution by court-martial,” the lawsuit reads.

Yarbrough could also be discharged for future adverse actions and the LOA negatively affects his military and civilian career as a lawyer, according to the lawsuit.

“[A]s a civilian attorney, he may be required to work for clients dealing with First Amendment issues, including free speech or religious liberty cases related to the Air Force,” the lawsuit claims. “The issuance of the LOA for actions engaged in while in his civilian capacity creates a threat that his civilian advocacy could subject him to additional military discipline.”

Antony Kolenc, another attorney for Yarbrough and the Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic at Ave Maria Law, told Just the News on Wednesday that his concern about his client’s case is that it “is just one symptom of a much wider problem of essentially not tolerating people’s religious beliefs.”

From religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate to beliefs “against woke ideology,” Kolenc said that accommodating “religious beliefs is not popular with social issues” such as “LGBT rights. In the military, free speech and the exercise of religion is losing out.”

Yarbrough said in a statement on Tuesday, “As the totalizing claims of radical progressivism devour more and more of our common life and institutions, even prosaic, obvious, and natural truths are vilified as harmful and extreme. I did not seek out this fight, but my faith forbids me from quietly assenting to what I know to be false. As a Christian I will not live by lies, even if it means I am no longer allowed to serve in uniform the country that I love, which has been one of the singular privileges of my life.”

The Space Force didn’t respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. The Air Force told Just the News on Thursday that it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

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