Firing of Charlotte City Employee over Facebook Post Highlights First Amendment Debate

Lisa Worf, WFAE (Charlotte), December 18, 2014

A City of Charlotte fire investigator is out of a job because of a Facebook post in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri riots. It’s the first time a Charlotte city employee has been fired over a posting on social media. An attorney for the investigator says the city overreached.

So what are the First Amendment rights of public employees?

City Manager Ron Carlee says it’s essential the public is confident that city employees will treat all people with dignity and respect.

He believes Crystal Eschert violated that confidence shortly after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Eschert is white. She referenced reports of another police shooting near Ferguson that said a white person was the victim. She wrote on her personal Facebook page:

Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martin’s parents? Where are all the white guy supporters? So WHY is everyone MAKING it a racial issue?!? So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race–You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!

Eschert did not identify herself as a Charlotte Fire Department employee, but she was fired in September after someone emailed the post to city officials. Carlee says it was discriminatory and inflammatory.

Guy Charles has a different phrase for it. He co-directs Duke University’s Center on Law, Race and Politics.

“She said something that at best was racially insensitive, but on a public issue on a private page,” says Charles. “Between the hand that she’s holding and the hand that the city’s holding, I think I’d prefer to have her hand.”

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The Charlotte Fire Department doesn’t give much guidance to employees about what’s considered unacceptable speech.  Its social media policy says not to use “unprofessional communication” that could negatively impact the department’s reputation, interfere with its mission, or negatively affect its employees.

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