Commentary

Threats of violence and thoughtcrimes: Selective speech standards at the State House

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Maine’s Capitol Police Chief Russ Gauvin is on trial in the court of public opinion for thoughtcrimes, and while I don’t personally agree with what he has shared on his social media accounts, I will defend his right to say it (and do not believe it should affect his employment). Gauvin was temporarily removed from his post Wednesday pending a review of his conduct.

Mainer, a free monthly news and arts magazine born out of The Bollardpublished an article on January 15 highlighting several social media posts made by Gauvin in 2020 that question the results of the November 3 presidential election and the usefulness of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The article makes a number of generalizations and rushes to judgment about Gauvin’s ability to do his job based on his social media posts and reactions to other users’ social media posts.

In response to the article, 70 democratic Maine lawmakers signed a letter addressed to Department of Public Safety Commissioner, Michael Sauschuck, calling for an investigation into Gauvin’s conduct.

“Chief Gauvin expressed support for conspiracy theories that led to the violent insurrection against the government at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the death of the two police officers. His words portray an inability to neutrally provide for the safety of every member of the Legislature,” the letter reads.

To be clear, Gauvin did not tell people to attend the protest in Washington D.C. on January 6 or to storm the U.S. Capitol. He did not endorse or condone violence. Nor did he directly promote the president’s “Stop the Steal” campaign. According to Mainer, Gauvin on November 7 posted on Facebook that he had “zero confidence in the reported results,” accompanied by an anonymous post on the website Law Enforcement Today that advances debunked theories about the presidential election, calling it the “greatest psychological operation America has ever seen.”

While troubling, my guess is that Gauvin’s immediate sentiment about the election, regardless of its validity, was shared by millions of Americans. It’s not a crime to say you have no confidence in the reported election results. Expressing this sentiment doesn’t mean he supports or condones the attack on the Capitol on January 6. It alone certainly doesn’t link him to those events. Nor does holding this view directly undermine his ability to perform his job.

The Mainer article goes on to criticize Gauvin for his views regarding COVID-19 and the use of face masks, calling his Facebook commentary a promotion of the idea that mask mandates “are part of a grand, sinister plot against the public.”

In addition to making a post that directly questioned the merits of face masks in early July, Gauvin on August 16 shared an article from The Critic, a conservative British magazine, titled “Face masks make you stupid,” paired with his own commentary of “Interesting read.” As noted by Mainer, the article argues that face masks dehumanize thier wearers and make them susceptible to authoritarian control.

To be clear, there is no evidence that Gauvin instructed Capitol Police to disobey the governor’s mask mandate, or refuse to enforce it. On his own time, and on his own Facebook page, he questioned whether or not masks work (like millions of other Americans trying to stay abreast of the latest public health guidance).

Again, holding and expressing this opinion is not a crime. There is no evidence Gauvin’s views are affecting his job performance or undermining the enforcement of the mask mandate, despite Mainer’s best attempts to link him to a small handful of Republican lawmakers who violated the mandate in a State House office on January 5. John Bott, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, clarified that the infraction was a result of a misunderstanding of the policy in private offices. It certainly wasn’t because Chief Gauvin told them they don’t have to wear one.

“This is the first violation in 2021 that we’re aware of and it does seem to be a misunderstanding of the policy,” Christine Kirby, a spokeswoman for Senate President Troy Jackson, told the Press Herald. “If there are repeated violations, we’ll go from there. As Capitol Police stated, enforcement includes possible removal from (the) building.”

Huh. Sounds like the Capitol Police are pretty serious about that mask mandate.

The original Mainer article also asserts that Gauvin “expressed sympathy” with the radical views of a former Maine police officer who on Facebook called for the use of deadly force against protesters this summer. The assertion is based on Gauvin responding to a Facebook comment made by the officer with a “sad/crying face” emoji using the platform’s “Like” button. How exactly the outlet determined this response represents sympathy for the officer’s views, instead of sadness towards the officer’s negativity, I cannot explain.

But as also noted in the original article, Gauvin created an account on Parler in early November. Due to the platform being shut down by Amazon Web Services, it’s unclear what type of content he shared there. Hackers obtained the content stored on Parler before the site went offline, and that data is expected to be made available to the public soon. Perhaps Gauvin actually participated in some of the crazy things of which he is being accused, but without evidence, these claims are irresponsible.

The great irony in all of this is one little sentence included in the letter penned by Maine Democrats earlier this week: “Those who commit to public service are held to a higher standard for public comments.” You may recall the party’s elected members took the opposite stance just a few years ago when one of their colleagues was in hot water for social media statements about President Trump.

Maine Democrats did not take seriously the threat of physical harm to President Trump made by former Maine Rep. Scott Hamann of South Portland. In July 2017, Hamann posted on Facebook that “Trump is a half term president, at most, especially if I ever get within 10 feet of that pussy.”

An order was drawn up to expel Hamann from the Maine House of Representatives for his Facebook comments. Not a single Maine Democrat voted to hold Hamann accountable for what he said. To date, Gauvin’s comments pale in comparison to Hamann’s open threat of violence, though unlike Hamann, Maine Democrats believe Gauvin should be punished.

We should expect leaders like Gauvin to be thoughtful and grounded in their statements on public affairs, whether they’re expressed in the traditional press or on social media. This is especially true for statements about controversial topics in today’s heated political environment. Gauvin’s comments were insensitive given his position as the chief of the Capitol Police, but I do not believe they warrant his firing.

Expressing unpopular or controversial opinions about face masks and the November election on his own time does not mean Gauvin is incapable of performing his duties, or that Augusta isn’t safe. Firing this man only fuels the cancel culture madness that Americans think has gone too far. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think people should be fired for thinking differently than I do.

Unfortunately, few have come to Gauvin’s defense while hordes of leftists accuse him of hate crimes and insurrection. Rep. John Andrews is the only lawmaker I’ve seen stand up for Gauvin’s speech rights on his official Facebook page.

I didn’t call for Hamann’s expulsion or resignation in 2017 despite his comments being uncomfortably close to the fine line between humor and threats of violence. Similarly, Maine Democrats should not be calling for Gauvin’s firing today.

From what we know to date, Gauvin didn’t incite or encourage violence, or otherwise engage in unlawful speech (or any other unlawful activity, for that matter). He expressed his opinions on his own Facebook page. That is the charge against him today.

I wish every Maine lawmaker would stand up for constitutionally protected speech always, not just when the person in their tribe says something stupid. Doing so would result in far fewer battles waged in the court of public opinion.

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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