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After learning that an executive officer aboard a Yokosuka-based Navy ship sent an e-mail instructing sailors to say nothing to media about recently imposed liberty restrictions, the USS Kitty Hawk Strike Group issued a clarification Friday to personnel about their free-speech rights.

A Navy official said wording in the e-mail, issued more than a week ago, was a “misinterpretation” of guidance used for official command responses to media inquiries.

“It’s the case of an XO acting in what he thought was the best interest of the Navy,” Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, a Strike Group spokesman, told Stars and Stripes. “It was a misinterpretation of the intent of the guidance. It was never intended to infringe upon a sailor’s right of free speech.”

Stars and Stripes had queried the Navy on Thursday after off-duty sailors in Yokosuka city told a reporter they had been instructed they could not offer their thoughts or opinions on the liberty restrictions.

The newspaper also had received a copy of the e-mail, which did not identify the executive officer who wrote it or his ship.

The liberty restrictions, including a 1 a.m. curfew for Kitty Hawk Strike Group sailors, were imposed two weeks ago in the wake of several recent crimes in Japan of which U.S. sailors have been accused, among them the Jan. 3 robbery and killing of a 56-year old Yokosuka woman.

The e-mail — addressed to “ALCON” (all-concerned) — stated that “no one should be answering a media query directly without approval.

“For example, if your Sailors are asked by a Stars and Stripes reporter what they think of the new liberty plan or the current status of liberty, they should politely take down the reporter’s name and number … so that we can contact the right person to field the question.”

Friday’s clarification, however, stated that “sailors are free to express their opinions and views in an appropriate manner,” said Bernard.

The clarification was distributed by Rear Adm. Doug McClain, the USS Kitty Hawk Strike Group commander.

“In no way have sailors ever been discouraged from expressing their views in a timely and appropriate manner,” Bernard added. “That’s why we’re further clarifying this to the commanders of the strike group.”

Cmdr. John Wallach, spokesman for Commander, Naval Forces Japan, said CNFJ and 7th Fleet commanders would never give such guidance that the e-mail contained.

“We would never tell sailors they’re prohibited from speaking with the press or exercising their free-speech rights,” Wallach said.

“There was no area-wide guidance or directive issued by the senior leadership here that put any restrictions on free speech or directed sailors to suppress their personal opinions on these issues.”

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