MANY PUBLIC EMPLOYEES are learning the hard way: The right to free speech doesn’t extend to racist speech when you’re on a taxpayer-funded salary.
Some of the recent examples are particularly egregious. There was the National Guard soldier who could be called in to police protests who wrote on Snapchat about protesters, “You’re all stupid I can’t wait to shoot you tomorrow night.”
The National Guard removed that soldier from active duty while investigating his “inflammatory” comments, the Boston Globe reported.
There are also clear problems when a public official uses a taxpayer-funded social media account for politics – like the Salem police captain who used the department’s Twitter account to criticize state and city officials’ handling of racial protests and the coronavirus pandemic, or the Cambridge police superintendent who inadvertently used the department’s account to describe US Rep. Joe Kennedy using an expletive.
Then there’s the case of a Chicopee Police Department spokesman who wrote a Facebook post comparing the on-field protest of football player Colin Kaepernick with the white police officers who killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man. MassLive reported that the spokesman had a history of controversial social media posts, calling Black Lives Matter a terrorist group and saying the police should be able to shoot looters. He lost his job as public information officer.
Also in Chicopee, MassLive reported that, at Bellamy Middle School, a teacher lost her job for posting a racist Facebook post that criticized protesters and people on government assistance, and used stereotypes about people on government assistance. The teacher apparently cut and pasted the post, without attribution, from a Georgia mayor, who also got in trouble over it.
Another education controversy — involving a very different scenario — was handled differently. A black teacher from Milton was placed on leave after telling her students that “many cops are racist” during a discussion about racism centering on two poems by black poet Langston Hughes. Her leave was lifted later that day, the Patriot Ledger reported, and the Milton teachers’ union has been protesting her treatment.
The Boston Globe used the incident to take an in-depth look at differences in how racism is talked about in the largely white district of Milton compared to schools in more heavily minority districts in Boston.
Massachusetts is far from the only place where the protests against racism and the simultaneous national pandemic have led to free speech questions. USA Today reported that a University of North Carolina professor kept his job despite outrage over comments he made saying people who wear masks in public look like “fools,” calling the governor a “fascist,” and calling North Carolina a “slave state” because of coronavirus-related restrictions.
There, the university disavowed his comments but said his comments are protected speech, and many First Amendment scholars agreed.