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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama & Naval Academy swords

Q: Did Obama order a "swordless graduation" at the U.S. Naval Academy?

A: This Internet scuttlebutt is false. Graduating midshipmen have gone without swords at graduation for decades, even when Bush and Cheney spoke.


[Is it true] That Obama ordered Naval Academy graduates not to wear swords?


This is the story of how a routine security measure became transformed, through sloppy reporting, careless assumptions and Internet rumor-mongering, into a false allegation that the new President had insulted the dignity of the U.S. Navy.

The only grain of truth in this e-rumor is that members of the audience at the May 22 graduation ceremony were not allowed to bring ceremonial swords, or anything that could be used as a weapon, into the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where President Obama spoke.

However, according to USNA spokeswoman Jennifer Erickson, the same restriction applied when President Bush gave the commencement address in 2005, and when Vice President Cheney spoke in 2006. In fact, the restriction is a routine security precaution that the Navy (not the White House) applies to other events at the stadium – including ordinary Naval Academy football games.

Also prohibited inside the stadium were knives, mace, umbrellas and any outside food or drink. The restrictions were published well in advance of the May 22 ceremony as part of the schedule of events. Included was this section:

Stadium Prohibited Items (items ok to bring on the Yard have an asterisk)

The following items are PROHIBITED from entering through the gates. Individuals shall be allowed entrance ONLY after disposing or securing prohibited items. Furthermore, screeners will NOT “hold” items; the owner must dispose of or secure the item(s) in their vehicle, etc.

     Weapons/knives of any type, to include ceremonial swords
     Bags larger than a typical purse (i.e., duffle bags, back packs, large camera bags, etc.)
     Outside food or drink*
     Anything that may be considered a weapon or a threat by screeners

Attendees have been reminded that the above items, along with valuables, should be left at home or secured in their vehicle prior to getting in line at the security checkpoint.

Umbrella strollers and wheelchairs are allowed into the site after they have been visually swept. Cameras and cell phones are acceptable.

The first step in twisting this into a blast at the White House was a May 21 item posted on the Washington Times "Inside the Beltway" site, headlined "Swordless Sailors." It said the reporter had "obtained" the list of prohibited items for Obama’s speech. That in itself is a bit of puffery, since, as noted already, the list was actually posted on the USNA Web site for all to see. The reporter also stated that the ban applied to "graduating midshipmen," which was also misleading. As noted already, it applied to anybody coming into the stadium. And in any event, graduating midshipmen have not worn swords as part of their uniform at commissioning ceremonies for decades, according to a statement issued by Navy CDR Joe Carpenter, the Naval Academy’s public affairs officer.

Soon the misleading Washington Times report was being re-posted on dozens of conservative Web sites and blogs, often along with howls of indignant outrage. Examples:  "Obama Emasculates U.S. Naval Academy." "Obama takes a swipe at sailors." ". . . insulting . . . contemptible."

But the U.S. Naval Academy would like it known that such claims are false. Here is the text of CDR Carpenter’s statement, which USNA spokeswoman Erickson encouraged us to post here in full:

USNA Statement on May 22 Graduation

There is unfortunately a considerable amount of misunderstanding and in some cases a lack of context regarding prescribed uniforms, ceremonial swords and associated security measures in conjunction with the recent May 22nd U.S. Naval Academy graduation and commissioning.

Midshipmen and officers did not wear ceremonial swords at graduation because of long established uniform protocol, not due to security concerns as some observers have inferred. In fact, the prescribed uniform for officers and Naval Academy midshipmen participating in the graduation and commissioning was "Navy Service Dress White" – i.e. the familiar Navy "choker" white uniform with ribbons; medals and swords were not prescribed with this uniform for this event. Other military service personnel who were participating wore their equivalent service uniform in the same configuration. Navy Service Dress White (and Marine Corps equivalent) has been the prescribed uniform for Naval Academy graduations in recent history, spanning the past several decades. Graduating midshipmen did not wear swords because swords were not a component of the service uniform prescribed for either this graduation or many other previous graduations.

It may also be helpful to know that in conjunction with the graduation and commissioning celebration, many family members and friends of graduating Naval Academy midshipman present their graduate and newly commissioned Navy ensign or Marine Corps second lieutenant the service’s ceremonial officer sword to symbolize the beginning of their careers as officers in the naval service.

The May 22nd graduation was attended by nearly 30,000 people, all of which had to undergo required security screening. As a matter of routine measures associated with similar events, attendees were required to be screened through magnetometers, and were prohibited from bringing large bags, large electronic items, and any instruments or tools that could be considered weapons or appear to be weapons. The Naval Academy advised the graduates and their families about the strict security associated with the graduation and recommended that families not bring certain items, including ceremonial swords. The intent was to avoid any additional stadium entry delays and to preclude family members from possibly not being able to attend their midshipman’s graduation. This was consistent with many previous graduation ceremonies.

I hope that this helps explain any misunderstandings on these issues.

CDR Joe Carpenter
Public Affairs Officer
United States Naval Academy

-Brooks Jackson