We have been discussing the termination of public employees and others for their postings on social media or public displays. The latest case is out of New Jersey where former Hopewell Township police officer Sara Erwin was fired recent over a June 2020 posting on Facebook in which she referred to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters as “terrorists.” There remains an uncertain line of what political or social views are tolerated and what are barred on social media. Indeed, Sgt. Mandy Gray was suspended and demoted for simply liking the June 2020 post.
Gray was the first female officer hired in Hopewell Township and became the first female sergeant in 2019, according to NJ.com.
Erwin insists that she posted the statement after she and her colleagues were faced with violent protests and family members who were traumatized by images on television of officers being attacked. Erwin reportedly wrote i:
“Last night as I left for work I had my two kids crying for me not to go to work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I did last night. And then I watched people I know and others I care about going into harms way. I love my police family like my own. So when you share posts and things on Facebook I’d really appreciate if you’d THINK before doing so. I’ve seen so many black lives matter [sic] hashtags in these posts. Just to let you know — they are terrorists. They hate me. They hate my uniform. They don’t care if I die.”
Hopewell Township Mayor Julie Blake and the town’s council made the decision to fire her in an unanimous vote to accept the recommendations of a hearing officer.
As will come as little surprise to many on this blog, my default is in favor of free speech. My concern is the lack of a consistent rule. For example, would the town have fired Erwin if she said the same thing about another group like the Proud Boys or the NRA?
I can understand the objection to the posting. BLM is a group committed to fighting police abuse and regularly engages in protests. For an officer to express such bias against BLM can exacerbate tensions in such protests. However, officers also have a right to be able to express themselves. The balance of those interests should, at a minimum, have favored a reprimand rather than a termination for Erwin. If not, the town should establish a clear standard as to what public employees are allowed to express on political and social issues. This includes whether certain groups can be criticized but not others.
Twitter recently censored criticism of a BLM founder and we have been discussing the targeting of professors who voice dissenting opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, or aspects of the protests around the country from the University of Chicago to Cornell to Harvard to other schools. Students have also been sanctioned for criticism BLM and anti-police views at various colleges. Even a high school principal was fired for stating that “all lives matter.” Each of these controversies raise concerns over the countervailing statements against police or Republicans or other groups.
The action taken by Hopewell Township raises more questions than answers on where this line is drawn in terms of free speech.