By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Chase Standage, a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman facing expulsion over social media posts, sees himself as a casualty of a campus “culture war." Academy leaders say the damage to his military career was self-inflicted.
An academy official recommended disenrolling the white midshipman for tweeting a flurry of crude messages, 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.
But a federal judge in Maryland ultimately could decide whether the 21-year-old California native has a future as a Naval officer and pilot. U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander didn't immediately rule on Friday after presiding over a hearing on Standage’s request for a court order allowing him to finish his senior year and graduate.
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 sued to block his separation from the academy, claiming it violated his First Amendment right to freely express his views. His 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.
Hollander expressed doubt that she will rule before the academy’s semester ends on Dec. 12. She previously ruled that Standage could remain at the academy while his lawsuit is pending.
“This case is the kind of case that keeps you up at night when you're a judge,” she said.
The son of two Los Angeles Police Department officers, Standage 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 didn't identify himself as a midshipman in the posts, but his Twitter handle was @ChaseStandage.
Hollander expressed concern that Standage’s discipline will have a chilling effect on the free speech of other midshipmen.
“I am not condoning or endorsing what he said, but there is a larger issue here," the judge said. “Where does the student know what would be deemed unprofessional? Where is that outlined? Because it seems like it's totally subjective.”
Standage's attorney, Jeffrey McFadden, said other midshipmen with different views than Standage routinely violate the same standards without any consequences.
“It's a deeply flawed process," McFadden said.
An academy official who recommended Standage's removal said the midshipman "lost my confidence in his ability to make sound decisions and to uphold the core values expected from an officer in the Navy.” The court temporarily suspended Standage's disciplinary process after he sued on Sept. 30.
A government lawyer urged the judge to throw out the lawsuit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Marzullo said the courts must show “great deference” to the judgment of military authorities.
"In this case, a military commander is better situated to evaluate whether comments that advocate for the use of airstrikes against civilians dishonor or disgrace an aspiring naval aviator and compromise his standing as an officer," Marzullo wrote in a court filing.
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.”
Like many other colleges and universities in the U.S., the Naval Academy has been grappling with questions about systemic racism within their institutions.
In June, the Naval Academy rescinded an appointment to a Maryland student who posted racist, transphobic and sexist statements on the Discord instant messaging platform. That same month, a retired Navy captain resigned from the US Naval Academy Alumni Association board after accidentally posting live video on social media of a conversation with his wife that included racist comments.
Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the Naval Academy’s superintendent, said in a statement in September that he was “not naive in thinking that bigotry and racism do not exist, to some extent, within our Naval Academy family.”
Buck and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite are named as defendants in Standage's lawsuit. The suit describes Buck as “a true believer in the woke culture and its insistence that ‘systemic’ racism permeates the Naval Academy.”