When is a police officer not a police officer?
This is not a rhetorical question, but the object of a serious inquiry by the Wilmington Police Department after one of its officers, Anthony Easterling, posted on his Facebook wall:
A word to the wise never get drunk and trip off of meds and call a cop a 'N' results broken jaw and criminal charges……WPD for life.
According to the News Journal, Easterling was off duty at the time of the post, and the officer has yet to be connected to any physical harm related to the statement (the department also won't release information, citing an ongoing investigation).
He later described the Fourth of July comment as just "letting off pressure on Facebook," yet others, including Mark Marshall, a sheriff in Virginia and a previous president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, say that Easterling overstepped the line between public servants and private citizens.
The Wilmington Police Department's internal investigation into the Facebook activity is ongoing, but immediate insight may be more readily found in the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court Case Waters v Churchill.
In 1994, at least 10 years before the advent of Facebook, the court determined that, in certain circumstances, the government could restrict officers' First Amendment rights, writing in their majority opinion:
The government cannot restrict the speech of the public at large in the name of efficiency. But where the government is employing someone for the very purpose of effectively achieving its goals, such restrictions may well be appropriate.
In a similar case in late March, Jason Giroir, a New Orleans police officer, resigned after posting offensive comments on the webpage of a local news station regarding Trayvon Martin's death.
The police superintendent in that case determined that Giroir's comments cast doubt on his abilities to "continue as a New Orleans police officer," finding he'd violated regulations regarding "Professionalism," "Social Networking Websites," and "Performance of Duty."
Giroir was already under investigation for a shooting death related to a traffic stop there.