U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger made headlines last week for being critical of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to withdraw National Guard troops from the U.S.’ southern border.
Kinzinger, the representative in the 16th Congressional District, recently returned from a border mission with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, meaning he was off duty when he made the comments.
The Channahon Republican said he was “deeply disappointed” that the governor “won’t let them do what they are trained to do for the good of the country,” asking Evers to reconsider his decision. The congressman gave reasons for his opinion and other critiques in a thread of Twitter comments.
Instead of addressing the merit of Kinzinger’s criticism, however, Evers responded by saying he was looking into whether Kinzinger could be disciplined for his comments.
Wisconsin statutes state that any commissioned officer who uses “contemptuous words against the president, the vice president, members of Congress, the secretary of defense, the secretary of a military department, the secretary of homeland security or the governor or Legislature of the state of Wisconsin shall be punished as a court martial may direct.”
This statute is in place to protect from insubordination. Until Kinzinger speaks up on active duty, he hasn’t crossed any lines.
Once Kinzinger received paperwork saying he was off duty, he returned to his role as citizen, and as a citizen, he holds the job of congressman in Illinois’ 16th Congressional District, meaning political debate is part of his responsibility.
Regardless of his opinion on the issue, he has a right to voice it.
That’s why we were discouraged when Evers indicated that he would “look into” disciplining Kinzinger for speaking his mind on an issue that very much needs to be debated in the public eye.
Instead of engaging in a discussion, Evers tried to silence it and divert attention away from it in order to gain a political victory.
We are not being naive. We understand these maneuvers are classic political theater from both sides.
Where we draw the line is when actions are taken to suppress free speech.
Once a precedent is set for a governor to threaten to misuse a statute to silence political opponents, it will infringe not only on Kinzinger’s rights as an off-duty member of the National Guard, but also others as well.
We should be inviting veterans of service to feel comfortable to speak up after their service time is complete, because their input is invaluable to understanding military issues.
Long before he was a U.S. senator, it was a 27-year-old John Kerry who spoke up about the ills of the Vietnam War with the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
During his speech, Kerry cited an investigation that resulted in more than 150 honorably discharged veterans testifying to war crimes.
Kerry’s issue was more dire, but the idea is that a precedent should not be set that interferes with the free speech of off-duty service members.
Ideally, when Evers was asked whether Kinzinger’s comments crossed a line, the governor should have said the congressman has a right to say them, whether he agrees or not.
It may not have played as well with his base, but it would have been the right thing to do.
Sacrificing our rights for a political victory should not be in the regular playbook. Our politicians need to do better.