The State House in Augusta stands out against a blues sky on Wednesday Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

To put it mildly, we are big fans of the First Amendment. It’s at the foundation of what the Bangor Daily News does as a newspaper. It’s an invaluable check on the government, preventing Congress from making laws that abridge the freedoms of religion, speech and the press along with the rights to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances.

What the First Amendment isn’t, however, is a blank check for people to say and do whatever they choose without any consequences.

There are still legal ramifications for the press, such as libel laws. There also can be professional ramifications for speech, even as people enjoy First Amendment protections. For instance, state workers, including Maine Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin, have to follow the state policy on the personal use of social media.

Gauvin is currently under state review for his social media use, including posts and reactions related to the efficacy of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the legitimacy of the presidential election and most troublingly, violence against protestors. A large group of legislative Democrats and one independent recently called for an investigation and for Gauvin to be placed on leave. It has been unclear if he is actually on leave, but his deputy has now been placed in charge.

A similarly large group of legislative Republicans have since accused the Democrats of an attempt to “force ideological conformity.” The Maine Republican Party has predictably framed the situation as an example of “cancel culture.”

“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 suggest they were on behalf of a state agency,” the group of approximately 70 Republican lawmakers said in their letter. “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 state policy is also clear about something else: “Personal use of social media technologies by state employees that undermines or interferes with the ability of State agencies and state employees to carry out their responsibilities may be the proper subject of State review and corrective action.”

We reached out twice to the lead author of the Republican letter, Rep. Matt Harrington of Sanford, trying to understand why he didn’t seem to think Chief Gauvin’s actions raised concerns related to this part of the policy. We did not hear back.

When the leader of a law enforcement agency that is partially responsible for enforcing the mask policy at the State House publicly mocks mask wearing, that raises inevitable questions about how his agency will carry out that enforcement responsibility. When his social media usage leaves the door open to whether he’s sympathetic to a despicable comment suggesting that people should have been met with bullets and napalm this past summer amid protests against racial injustice, that raises questions about how his agency might treat some protestors at the State House.

Now, based on reporting from Mainer, an alternative news publication in Portland, Gauvin didn’t actually write that comment about violence against protestors. He reacted to it with a crying emoji. We think there’s an open question as to whether that amounts to sympathy or disapproving sadness. But still, that and the other questions raised by his social media use require review and answers.

He has since said that he takes seriously his “duty to uphold our laws, to do so in a fair and impartial way, and to protect the Capitol and our people.” That’s important, but it doesn’t answer all the questions.

It’s pretty clear to us that Gauvin’s social media activity meets the bar for state review and possible disciplinary action in terms of the policy language about undermining or interfering “with the ability of State agencies and state employees to carry out their responsibilities.” Even he has all but acknowledged as much, saying in his recent apology he recognizes “that several posts that l have shared, commented on, or reacted to in a personal capacity can be seen as inconsistent with my professional responsibilities.”

As such, a call for the state to investigate Gauvin’s actions isn’t “canceling” him or forcing ideological conformity on him. The issue isn’t that Gauvin espoused differing or controversial views, it’s that he used social media in a way that raises serious questions about how his work and his agency’s work is carried out. As we read the social media policy for state employees, and as we look at how the courts have approached private speech protections for government employees, that looks like clear grounds for review and potential corrective action.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we’re uncomfortable with what seems to be a rise in intolerance of opposing ideas and ideology. But it’s the chief’s actions on social media, and how they impact his professional responsibilities, that are under review here — not his ideology.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...