The United States Space Force, a branch of the armed forces under the Department of the Air Force, is punishing Jace Yarbrough, a major in the Air Force Reserve, for a speech he gave as a civilian during a private retirement ceremony for a friend.
Earlier this month, Yarbrough and his attorneys filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The suit names the Space Force, Department of the Air Force, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman as defendants.
Yarbrough served with distinction as an active-duty officer in the Air Force, winning multiple awards for leadership excellence and several times being rated No. 1 among his peers. Since 2015 he has served in the Air Force Reserve and is currently assigned to Space Systems Command at Patrick Space Force Base in Florida. In his civilian career, he is an attorney.
In 2021, a friend, Senior Master Sgt. Duane Fish, asked Yarbrough to preside over and give a speech at Fish’s Air Force retirement ceremony—a private, invitation-only event that was attended by 25 people, most of whom were family or close friends of Fish.
Yarbrough, with his wife and infant baby, traveled to the event in his civilian, off-duty capacity, paying his own expenses. He wore his uniform to the event, something that is both customary and authorized for events of this type.
In his speech, Yarbrough pointed to Fish’s courage and competence as qualities all Air Force personnel should embody, and he pointed to forces that threaten such qualities.
“The Air Force and the wider DoD [Department of Defense] are under threat, not only from without, but from within,” Yarbrough said. “Over the last decade, the totalizing claims of a radical political faction within our wider culture have broken into our military. This faction, time and again, has brought the culture war inside the DoD, knowing that if it can capture our top brass, the lower ranks will salute smartly and follow. Over the past 10-15 years, we have seen our service take sides on the most controversial issues of our times. Our service has been politicized. This, I fear, is a death knell for courage and competence.”
Yarbrough pointed to cancel culture, pointing out, “Ordinary Americans, including our Airmen, are at risk of losing their livelihoods for saying things that, until yesterday, were matters of basic common sense and wisdom. Things like, ‘men can’t birth babies,’ and ‘boys should not be allowed in the girls locker room.’”
Yarbrough also quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—a Christian who was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag for criticizing Joseph Stalin: “To stand up for truth is nothing,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “For truth, you must sit in jail. You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie.”
A member of an Air Force quartet who attended the ceremony complained about Yarbrough’s remarks, and a few weeks later, Yarbrough received a Letter of Admonishment from his supervisor. The letter alleged that Yarbrough’s remarks had been “insubordinate, disrespectful, and unbecoming of an officer in the military.”
Yarbrough issued multiple appeals up the chain of command, arguing that the Air Force had no jurisdiction over his comments as a civilian, that his speech was protected under the First Amendment and that his comments had been apolitical.
The Air Force has refused to rescind the letter, which can have a devastating effect on Yarbrough’s career. “My career is certainly over if this letter stays,” he said in a recent episode of First Liberty Live. First Liberty Institute, along with the Winston & Strawn law firm and the Ave Maria School of Law, are representing Yarbrough.
“We’ve entered dangerous territory if the Air Force thinks it can punish Jace for his private religious exercise and private speech while acting as a private citizen in a private venue,” said Danielle Runyan, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute. “In his purely civilian capacity, Jace had permission to speak freely and exercise his U.S. Constitutional and federally protected rights as an American citizen. The Air Force’s punishment of Jace is a perfect example of the very cancel culture he warned about in his speech.”
Above: Jace Yarbrough, right, with Danielle Runyan of First Liberty Institute.
Photo: First Liberty Institute