Inside Augusta

After trying to oust Maine Capitol Police chief, Senate Democrats defend free speech on social media

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More than 70 elected Maine Democrats, including 13 of 21 Democratic senators, signed a letter last month calling for Chief Russ Gauvin of the Capitol Police to be placed on administrative leave and for an investigation into his conduct on his private social media channels.

Twelve of the 13 Democratic senators who signed that letter voted to confirm District Court nominee Sarah Gilbert last Thursday, pushing back against some of their Republican colleagues who were scrutinizing the nominee’s activity on social media. The only senator who signed last month’s letter but did not vote to confirm Gilbert was Sen. Donna Bailey, who was excused from Thursday’s proceedings in the Senate.

Sen. Lisa Keim delivered a floor speech acknowledging the concerns raised about Gilbert’s conduct on social media during her confirmation hearings, but ultimately voted in support of her nomination in the absence of concrete facts about the alleged misconduct. Sen. Anne Carney also took a principled stance, saying rumors shouldn’t sink the nomination of a qualified attorney to become a judge in Maine.

Sen. Heather Sanborn defended Gilbert but with a different rationale; one that directly combats the stance she and other elected Democrats took just one month ago in relation to Chief Gauvin. While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments shared during her floor speech, I’m curious why Sanborn doesn’t apply this same logic to speech with which she disagrees.

“I wanted to rise to say that I think the line of questioning that was engaged in for a long period of time during the confirmation hearing with regard to Attorney Gilbert’s personal social media accounts, that were posted during a time when she was a private attorney in private practice, was really something that could have a chilling effect on our ability to have highly-qualified attorneys like Ms. Gilbert put themselves forward to join our bench in the future, Sanborn said.

“To have her attacked for her social media posts during a time when frankly all of us were posting about the elections, about different issues in the news, is to hold people to a standard for their entire life of nonpartisanship if they ever want to serve on the bench. And that’s not what the standard is, Sanborn continued.

“Again, I just want to suggest to all of my colleagues here that holding future judges to a standard of not having any kind of public political perspective at all, is not a standard that we should impose on our nominees going forward, or we simply will not have the types of judges we want to have on the bench in the future.”

Watch Sen. Sanborn’s speech, which begins at 6:51:43, on the legislature’s website here. The Senate Majority Office did not respond to The Maine Wire’s request for comment.

One month ago, Chief Gauvin was attacked for the social media posts he made leading up to and after the November election. The only real difference is the opinions he shared aren’t shared by Maine Democrats.

All present members of the Senate, excluding Sen. Rick Bennett, voted to confirm Gilbert for the District Court appointment.

“Those who commit to public service are held to a higher standard for public comments,” reads the letter signed by Maine Democrats last month to oust Gauvin.

Politics shouldn’t cloud our judgement on free speech. Elected officials in Maine should stand for free speech always, not just when someone in their tribe says something stupid. The selective and ever-changing speech standards in the Maine Legislature are impossible to follow.

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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