Inside Augusta

New letter defends Chief Gauvin’s free speech rights

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After Maine Democrats sent a letter to the state’s top public safety official Monday calling for an investigation into the conduct of Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin on his social media accounts, Republican lawmakers responded with a letter of their own Thursday defending the chief’s free speech rights.

Rep. Matt Harrington of Sanford, who is himself a police officer for the town of Kennebunk, authored the letter which was co-signed by nearly 70 of his Republican colleagues. The letter accuses their counterparts of politicizing public safety at the Capitol and states Chief Gauvin did not violate the social media policy for state personnel.

“As elected Representatives, who have taken an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions, we have serious concerns about the divisive partisan attacks on individual speech and the politicization of our safety. As Capitol Police Chief, Chief Gauvin has done an admirable job. He has behaved professionally and without favor toward the safety of every person working and visiting the Capitol,” the letter reads.

“The state policy is clear. Personal use of social media is protected by the First Amendment so long as use related to ‘subject matter[s] pertinent to State Employment,’ is ‘conducted in such a manner that no impression is created that the employee is speaking on behalf of the Agency.’ There is nothing in these private posts that suggests they were on behalf of a state agency. The Chief’s private opinions expressed through Facebook reactions and the sharing of articles and memes are his own and so long as he adheres to state use policies he should be free to express himself.”

The letter raises concerns that taking action against Gauvin for his Facebook commentary would lead to a slippery slope where nonpartisan legislative staff lose their jobs for expressing opinions contrary to those shared by the party in power.

“Routinely in the offices under control of the Legislature, non-partisan employees on their own time on their private pages express controversial views. Are we now to scour the pages of the House Clerk and Senate Secretary staff for unacceptable Facebook reactions and shared articles? Or is it the opinion of the Democrat signatories that whoever holds the majority gets to decide what speech privately represented is and is not ok?

“If non-partisan employment in state government is contingent upon not having differing opinions, who will be left?” the letter asks.

Reports surfaced earlier this week that Gauvin was on temporary leave pending a review of his conduct and that Lieutenant Robert Elliot is temporarily leading the department. But as noted Friday by the politics team at the Bangor Daily News, the state has not confirmed that Gauvin is on leave, citing a confidential personnel matter.

Photo Credit: Capitol Police Maine Facebook page

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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