We have previously discussed the increasing trend toward monitoring and disciplining private and public employees for comments on social media. These cases raise difficult questions of free speech in our society. The most recent such case involves Leslie Anderson, a law clerk for a New Jersey judge who resigned after being suspended after she made comments on Facebook criticizing a state trooper who was killed in a crash with a deer. While some praised 24-year-old Anthony Raspa (left) as a hero, Anderson also expressed sympathy for the dead animal, saying “I agree that it is sad and heart-wrenching for the family members left to suffer the consequences of the trooper’s recklessness—especially for the deer family who lost a mommy or daddy or baby deer.”
It is not clear how Anderson viewed the trooper as reckless in the accident since such accidents can occur without any fault of the driver on many roads. Raspa and partner Gene Hong were patrolling on I-195 when their Ford Crown Victoria struck the deer early Saturday. The car careened off the road and hit a tree.
Anderson, a law clerk for Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Travis L. Francis was without question over-the-top in her Facebook posting: “Not that sad, and certainly not ‘tragic,’ Troopers were probably traveling at a dangerously high speed as per usual. Totally preventable. At least they didn’t take any of the citizens they were sworn to serve and protect with them.” She later added that the praise Raspa was receiving by other commenters for his service as “absurd” and “nonsensical” :
“The ‘victim’s’ employment as a state trooper is irrelevant to the circumstances, other than the fact that he injured a fellow trooper and destroyed state property as a result of his recklessness. He wasn’t running into a burning building or otherwise acting within the course of his employment at the time of the accident. The outcry and ‘thank yous’ are absurd, nonsensical, and completely unwarranted. There are people in this country and around the world dying for much less. There is nothing ‘tragic’ about this. Get over yourselves and your sense of entitlement, people . . .
Nonetheless, I agree that it is sad and heart wrenching for the family members left to suffer the consequences of the Trooper’s recklessness — especially for the deer family who lost a mommy or daddy or baby deer.”
The question is not whether these comments are wrong or offensive but the right of someone to engage in such a public debate without fear of retaliation.
I have previously written about concerns that public employees are increasingly being disciplined for actions in their private lives or views or associations outside of work. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here).
The question for me is whether she used her court association, which does not appear to be the case. If Anderson was simply engaging in a public discourse, I am concerned that she would be punished for it. She was initially put on a paid suspension before she ultimately resigned under fire from the police association and others. President Chris Burgos insisted that the comments showed that Anderson couldn’t be impartial, but she was merely a law clerk, not the judge.
What do you think?