Is the Air Force Teaching NCOs That They Have No First Amendment Rights?


Earlier today, we published a story about Course 15, an Air Force career development course for NCOs. Since fielding the online alternative to what was formerly a classroom experience, the service has established strict time limits within which NCOs must complete the course, with their ability to be promoted or to re-enlist constrained if they fail to meet prescribed milestones.

Wings across the Air Force are reporting low course completion rates. This has senior enlisted managers worried that a massive cohort of NCOs will render themselves unable to continue service or compete for promotion, potentially triggering a manpower crisis along the spine of the force. Many NCOs seem to be deliberately self-eliminating by refusing to complete Course 15 — or at least expressing ambivalence about their futures in connection with the supposed “voluntary requirement.” 

While writing that earlier piece, I found myself wondering why so few NCOs are availing themselves of no-cost professional development at the earliest opportunity. A hundred different answers to that question have appeared in my inbox throughout the evening. Judging by what is being said to me directly and what I can see on social media, airmen, with very few exceptions, absolutely despise Course 15.

Turns out they may have good reason. Here are two screenshots from a proprietary study guide that helps NCOs study Course 15 and prepares them to pass exams. The first screenshot poses a question, and the second provides an answer (while not depicted in the shot, the words shown are what the course says comprise the “correct” answer).


Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 6.54.12 PM

Now, to be clear, this isn’t the course itself … it’s a commercial study guide teaching the course. But if this reflects the information actually found in Course 15, NCOs have good reason to reject it. The “correct” answer in this case actually violates the Constitution and stands in conflict with federal regulations interpreting how it applies to military personnel.

Airmen do not “forfeit certain freedoms like speech and expression” when they take their oaths of service. First of all, they’re not “freedoms” … which would imply the government has control over whether and to what extent they are enjoyed. They’re “rights.” Individuals are entitled to them and possess them irrespective of whether anyone chooses to recognize them, and no one can “forfeit” rights even if they wanted to do so.

Now, to be sure, no right is unfettered. All rights are subject to interpretation of what they mean in the real world and under the circumstances, and this often leads to balancing tests by which the interests of private individuals in free expression are weighed against social, safety, security, or other interests. When it comes to free speech, commanders are responsible for weighing the need to maximize its exercise by airmen against the need for good order and discipline.

But it is a gross — and indeed unconstitutional — misapprehension to characterize this balancing as a total forfeiture by airmen for the privilege of serving. As spelled out in many Department of Defense instructions, commanders have a duty to maximize a servicemember’s right to free expression to the maximum extent possible.

If Course 15 is teaching something this wrong, it might help explain why NCOs seem to be conducting a sort of “peasant revolt.” Hard to blame them for rejecting tripe like this … concepts and ideas as idiotic and banal as they are offensive to the oaths they swore and the values they fight to uphold.

Maybe the Air Force’s senior enlisted leadership should spend some time critically reviewing Course 15 … and deciding if it lives up to the standards we expect from our NCOs and seek to instill in them. If it does, then it should be easy to persuade our NCOs to complete the course. If it doesn’t, the course should be scrapped and re-written to an appropriate standard.

Either way, coercing people to learn is always nonsense … especially if what’s being taught isn’t worth learning.

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