Ever since writer Paul Theroux got booted from the Peace Corps in 1965 for inadvertently conspiring to topple Malawian president Hastings Banda, the issue of political expression has been a sensitive one for Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. And today, as American soldiers pledge to bring democracy to Iraq, our “Ambassadors of Peace” face threats of expulsion for exercising their freedom of speech.

Earlier this year, a group of Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) in the Dominican Republic planned a peace demonstration to be held at the US Embassy in Santo Domingo on March 31. Co-organizer Aaron Drendel thought it was essential to “show Dominicans that there are Americans who don’t agree with the policies of our government right now.” Sixty to seventy volunteers agreed to join the demonstration. According to Drendel, local Peace Corps officials did not object initially, so long as the protest wasn’t held in the Peace Corps’s name. But three days before the march was scheduled, after consulting with Washington headquarters, local Peace Corps officials sent an e-mail to all volunteers warning that the protest would “cause tarnish and embarrassment to the Peace Corps” and that anyone taking part could face administrative separation, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. Fearful of being sent home, the vast majority who had planned to protest dropped out, including Drendel. In the end, only three protesters showed up, among them co-organizer Aaron Kauffman. Washington investigated Kauffman’s case but ultimately found no grounds for discipline, which makes him all the more bitter that the larger march was suppressed. “We were basically silenced,” says Kauffman.

Though the Peace Corps is independent from the State Department, its upper echelons come and go with Washington’s prevailing political winds, and volunteers who protest Administration policy have never been well received. (The President appoints the Peace Corps director and deputy director, and the appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.)

At the same time, the Peace Corps takes great pride in its political autonomy abroad. PCVs are not required to promote US foreign policy objectives and are barred from getting involved in the domestic politics of their host country, lest they sully the agency’s reputation of independence. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once insisted, “To make the Peace Corps an instrument of foreign policy would be to rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.” Yet the rules are far less clear when it comes to expressing opposition to US government actions. As outlined in a training manual distributed to all volunteers, PCVs must make clear that any political views expressed are their own, but they are also free to “petition the US government,” as many had planned to do by marching to the US Embassy in Santo Domingo on March 31.

The issue of free speech in the Peace Corps first went to court in 1969. Bruce Murray, a PCV in Chile, was expelled from the program after writing letters to the New York Times and a Chilean newspaper criticizing the Vietnam War and Peace Corps efforts to suppress an antiwar petition. Once home, he instantly became eligible for the draft. Murray sued and won. The court found that the Peace Corps had violated his First Amendment rights. In 1983, PCV Dean Wood staged a spontaneous solitary protest in front of the US Embassy in the Dominican Republic upon learning that President Reagan had invaded Grenada. But Wood forgot to change out of his Peace Corps T-shirt and was terminated. In 1987 a federal judge upheld the decision, ruling that volunteers’ speech is generally protected, but that Dominican newspaper photos of Wood protesting in a Peace Corps shirt damaged the credibility of the agency.

If anything, the expression of antigovernment views among PCVs would seem to bolster the Peace Corps’s much-touted image of independence. To many returned volunteers, presenting a diverse array of political views is vital to teaching locals about American values and ideals. “They’re asking for trouble if they silence volunteers,” says former PCV and veteran TV journalist Kevin Delany. “It’s far better to say this is in the spirit of our values.” Sam Brown, former director of the ACTION agency, which oversaw the Peace Corps during the Carter Administration, insists that “in large parts of the world right now, not expressing your opinion [and] being seen as a blind instrument of foreign policy puts you in more direct danger.” But Peace Corps spokeswoman Barbara Daly is adamant that such forays into political speech are potentially dangerous for the agency and its volunteers. “We need to protect the image of the Peace Corps,” she says. “For or against, we stay out of politics.”

Meanwhile, the Peace Corps is feeling the fallout from Bush Administration policies. On April 3 the agency withdrew all volunteers from Morocco in the wake of widespread antiwar protests and rising anti-Americanism. It is precisely at times like these that many current and former PCVs feel that it’s essential to show foreigners that Americans are not politically monolithic. After the Dominican protest was “crushed,” Drendel wrote to fellow PCVs: “As humanitarian volunteers we believed that we were in a respected position and could bring some positive light to Americans in a time when more than ever Americans are being labeled in a negative neo-imperialistic light.”

After all, one of the Peace Corps’s primary goals is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” But these days volunteers are feeling increasingly muzzled. “It’s sad that as volunteers we don’t have a voice,” protester Kauffman laments. “The Administration…gets to choose how we’re depicted to the general public.”