Judge: Premature to block midshipman's expulsion over tweets

A federal judge in Baltimore has ruled that it's premature for her to decide whether to block the U.S. Naval Academy from expelling a midshipman for posting social media messages deemed to be crude

Naval Academy-Crude Tweets
Naval Academy-Crude Tweets

A federal judge in Baltimore has ruled that it is premature for her to decide whether to block the U.S. Naval Academy from expelling a midshipman for posting social media messages deemed to be crude, noting a senior Navy official has not made a final disciplinary decision.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander agreed Tuesday to dismiss Chase Standage's lawsuit and denied the 21-year-old midshipman's request for a preliminary injunction allowing him to graduate from the academy She dismissed the case “without prejudice,” which means Standage can try to revive his claims after a later stage in his disciplinary proceedings.

The academy's superintendent recommended disenrolling the white midshipman over a string of tweets, including one in which he said Breonna Taylor received “justice” on the day police in Louisville, Kentucky, killed the Black woman during a drug raid.

Standage sued to block his separation from the academy, claiming it violated his First Amendment right to freely express his views. But the judge concluded Standage's claims are not “ripe” because his case has not been decided yet by a more senior official: Catherine Kessmeier, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

“And, it is pure conjecture as to whether the Assistant Secretary will accept, reject, or modify the Superintendent’s determination that plaintiff’s tweets constitute unsatisfactory conduct warranting his discharge from the Academy,” Hollander wrote in her 59-page ruling.

Standage's lawsuit also claims academy leaders violated his Fifth Amendment right to due process, denying him a fair and impartial disciplinary hearing.

He is accused of violating academy rules governing political activity and of engaging in conduct unbecoming a midshipman. The academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Sean Buck, determined that plaintiff’s tweets constituted “unsatisfactory conduct” and recommended his discharge.

During a hearing in October, the judge said Standage’s posts were “distasteful at best” and demonstrated poor judgment, but she questioned why he faces “the most draconian sanction he could get” when the academy explicitly permits midshipmen to express their personal opinions on social media.

“It appears that people in charge didn’t like his point of view. Not the way he said it but what he said,” Hollander said.

Standage, a California native, is the son of two Los Angeles Police Department officers. He says he feared for their safety during the week in June when he posted the tweets in question.

“Why is it taking so long for Breonna Taylor to receive her justice?” a Twitter user posted in June.

“Her justice was received on March 13, 2020,” Standage replied, referring to the day of the deadly raid.

Academy investigators also singled out several other tweets in which Standage advocated using lethal force against civilians.

“All it takes is one drone strike,” he tweeted in response to another user’s post about “antifa extremists” in Seattle.

Standage posted under the username “Cheese Sandwich” and did not identify himself as a midshipman in the posts, but his Twitter handle was @ChaseStandage.

Standage’s attorney, Jeffrey McFadden, and a Naval Academy spokeswoman did not immediately respond Wednesday to emails seeking comment on the judge's ruling.

Standage’s lawsuit claims the academy is waging a culture war “that not only mirrors the broader culture war at which the country currently finds itself, but one that is exacerbated by the unprecedented external stressor of the coronavirus pandemic and many midshipmen’s reckless abuse of social media.”

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