We discussed the termination of public employees and others for their posts on social media or public displays. The most recent case comes from New Jersey, where former Hopewell Township police officer Sara Erwin was recently fired for a post on Facebook in June 2020 calling Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters “terrorists”. There remains an uncertain line as to which political or social views are tolerated and which are forbidden on social media. In fact, Sgt. Mandy Gray was suspended and downgraded 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 she released the statement after she and her colleagues were exposed to violent protests and family members traumatized by television pictures of assaulted officers. Erwin supposedly wrote i:
“Last night when I went to work, my two children were crying that I shouldn’t go to work. I don’t think I ever felt like last night. And then I watched people I know and others who care about being harmed. I love my police family as much as my own. So if you share posts and things on Facebook, I would be very happy if you think about it beforehand. I’ve seen so many black lives that matter [sic] Hashtags in these posts. Just to let you know – they’re terrorists. They hate me. You hate my uniform. They don’t care if I die. “
Hopewell Borough Mayor Julie Blake and the city council decided to dismiss her unanimously to accept a hearing officer’s recommendations.
As many on this blog won’t surprise you, I advocate free speech by default. My concern is the lack of a uniform rule. For example, would the city have fired Erwin if they had 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 dedicated to combating police abuse and protests regularly. When an official expresses such bias against BLM, tension in such protests can escalate. However, officers also have the right to express themselves. The balancing of these interests should at least have favored a reprimand against a termination for Erwin. If not, the city should set a clear standard of what public officials 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 discussed targeting professors who had dissenting opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, or aspects of protests across the country from the University of Chicago to Cornell to Harvard others utter schools. Students were also punished for criticizing BLM and anti-police views at various universities. Even a headmaster was fired for saying that “all life is important”. Each of these controversies raises concerns about counter-statements against the police, Republicans, or other groups.
The actions taken by Hopewell Township raise more questions than answers about where that line is drawn in relation to freedom of expression.