Last month The Journal News reported that a member of the Pleasantville (N.Y.) Police Department received harsh discipline as a result of inflammatory statements made on the officer’s personal FaceBook page. Peter Burns, who reportedly operated under the online pseudonym “Coon Trapper,” made national news after his posts, critical of President Obama, were brought to the attention of local officials. “The fact that he (Obama) is still alive bewilders me… Go die in a shallow grave you Muslim commie,” reportedly appeared on Coon Trapper’s FaceBook page. Additionally, it is alleged that the page in question contained racial slurs to describe the President.
The Village board passed a resolution that allows Burns to keep his job on the condition that he serve a 60 day unpaid suspension, forfeit 25 vacation days, and be required to attend sensitivity training. Mayor Peter Scherer said “These statements undermine confidence in law enforcement, and they cast doubt on the ability of this officer to fulfill his sworn duties in a fair, unbiased manner.” He went on to say that the Village has no interest in the political beliefs of its employees.
While the digital element sometimes creates confusion, first amendment claims for public employees are not new. In Tindle v. Caudell a police officer was suspended for offensive off-duty conduct after attending a Halloween party dressed in black face. The Eighth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s claim that his conduct was protected under the First Amendment. They held that, even if his conduct was protected, his expressive rights must be balanced against the interests of the police department.
Although people have been using vulgar and embarrassing phrases to describe politicians since the inception of the democratic process, the advent of social media has amplified conversations that were once considered private. Should police officers be held to a higher standard than the average citizen for conduct and statements made while off-duty? Should the fact that the statements were believed to have been protected by online privacy settings make a difference?