The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) recently decided upon the Air Force case of U.S. v. Meakin, in which the defendant was convicted of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” — as described in UCMJ Article 133 — carried out through online interactions. He had been sentenced to extensive confinement, total forfeitures, and dismissal for his online actions, which included allegedly obscene communications with an undercover member of law enforcement. Meakin attempted to appeal the conviction by citing his First Amendment right to free speech, but the CAAF held the right did not apply to “obscene speech.”
In specific, the CAAF reached all the way back to Medieval Europe to cite that a member of the Air Force must always act as a knight “in the days of knighthood” would behave. Since the charge only accused him of being “obscene” and ungentlemanly but did not attempt to infringe on his right to act that way, if he so chose to risk the consequences, the conviction was affirmed and the First Amendment was deemed intact.
FURTHER DETAILS OF U.S. V. MEAKIN
Lieutenant Colonel Meakin pleaded not guilty to the charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman in his court-martial. The charges originated from online communications he orchestrated that spoke of sexually assaulting a child being one of his desires, although he did not say if he had ever any intent of acting upon it. He did, however, admit to viewing child pornography in a separate court-martial for that charge alone.
In his defense against the obscene behavior accusations, Meakin claimed he should have been protected from the violations of Article 133 under the First Amendment due to the private nature of his online conversations. He used the same argument to appeal the case to both the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) and the CAAF, where it was unanimously rejected on both fronts.
Within the written opinion from the CAAF, Judge Ryan claimed the First Amendment was not meant to protect speech with criminal origins or intent. Since the obscenity he spoke about involved child sex abuse, the Court did not find any reason to protect it under the First Amendment. Meakin also tried to argue that speaking anonymously on the internet to strangers was akin to talking privately in his own home. The CAAF shut down the argument, noting that the internet is infinitely open, even when someone speak anonymously, and bears no resemblance to the privacy of one’s own home.
Meakin also pointed to Lawrence v. Texas for defense, in which it was held that two people have “the right to form meaningful, personal bonds that find expression in sexual intimacy.” The CAAF rejected that defense as well, saying an online conversation with strangers is not comparable to such an intimate bond shared with someone close. Lastly, he tried to defend himself by saying he did not know his behavior could impact his status in the Air Force, nor did he think his behavior had any correlation to his duties. To reject this argument, the CAAF opinion once again noted that the First Amendment did not shield his obscene speech as it was defined and judged under Article 133, and so his knowledge of its consequences was unimportant.
WHAT TO LEARN FROM U.S. V. MEAKIN
The key takeaway any U.S. service member can get from U.S. v. Meakin is to always be mindful of what you are saying and to whom. Article 133 violations can be used to pin charges and convictions on you, even for words exchanged anonymously and in what you perceive to be a private situation, given that the conversation describes an obscene or criminal situation. This is a similar legal construct that can occur in civil criminal justice systems, such as how it may be seen as illegal to talk on end about realistic plans to carry out a criminal act.
If you need to protect your rights and military career from Article 133 violation accusations, you can turn to Attorney Joseph L. Jordan. As a former prosecutor turned military criminal defense lawyer, Joseph Jordan has a unique perspective into how military criminal defense cases and court-martial are handled by the opposition. Thanks to his insight, he has secured numerous victories for Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines who have been stationed in bases the world over. In fact, in the last 7 years, he has personally represented more than 250 clients, and he has taken more than 130 cases to verdict.
Get an experienced defender like Attorney Joseph Jordan on your side right away. Call (866) 624-7503to begin.