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Scott Jenkins column: Make that two darts

If the aim of an opinion piece was to evoke reaction, then last week’s Darts and Laurels would have been a raging success.

Or a success in evoking rage.

Either way,  I wrote that edition of Darts and Laurels and, on reflection, believe I was half wrong on one of them.

I wrote that piece the same day we received a statement from the city of Salisbury saying that one of its police officers, Bill Torrence, had been fired. The news release said Torrence had been terminated over a Facebook post that his employers found “inappropriate and inflammatory … concerning events taking place in our nation.”

I didn’t see the actual statement or statements Torrence posted on his Facebook page, nor did the reporter who wrote the article about his firing. People who had seen the page before it was removed, and who brought it to our attention at the newspaper, said it was about events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, and that they believed the language was racist. Police Chief Rory Collins said he didn’t believe the statement was racist but declined to share it with the Post.

The city’s news release said the Facebook posting “was determined to be a violation of department and city policies” and “was highly contrary to the legal and appropriate manner in which officers are trained to handle these types of situations.” A letter the city was required by state law to provide explaining the reasons for Torrence’s firing said he violated police department and city policy on “personal webpages/sites” and “standards of conduct.”

I threw a dart at Torrence, and I still believe he deserved it. As an officer of the law with more than two decades of experience, he ought to know better than to make statements anyone could take as inflammatory or racist about a situation that has, along with other recent cases, stoked racial tension and sparked protests across the country. Making matters worse, Torrence served in a community that has had its own instances of the black community expressing distrust of the police, and he should’ve been sensitive to that.

And he should have known that hardly anything is private when posted online, even on personal social media accounts.

That said, without knowing exactly what Torrence wrote and how far it went, I should not have given Collins and the city a laurel for dispatching him so quickly. I am a firm believer in the right to free speech — I work in a business protected by the same constitutional amendment that codifies that right. And I don’t believe that saying something ignorant or insensitive is cause to strip a person of that right.

This is not an isolated case. The city of Charlotte is defending itself after terminating fire department investigator Crystal Eschert, who made controversial comments about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri on her personal Facebook page. It’s different in that Eschert claims, the Charlotte Observer reported, that the firing was actually in retaliation for her raising concerns about safety at a recently renovated Charlotte Fire Department building. Either way, law professors told the Observer that while the rules may be slightly different when your employer is the government, Eschert may have a case for arguing her Facebook posts weren’t grounds for termination.

And maybe Torrence’s comments weren’t, either. We won’t know, unless someone comes forward with them or he sues the city and they become part of a legal proceeding. So for now, at least, I rescind the laurel I gave the city, and I give myself a dart for reacting so quickly. I’ll stick it right in my knee so I remember not to let it jerk next time.

Scott Jenkins is news editor of the Salisbury Post.

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