Bald Head Island police officer faces scrutiny for social media posts
BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - A Bald Head Island police lieutenant has removed a number of questionable social media posts from his personal Facebook account, after WECT questioned town leaders about the posts.
A concerned citizen and fellow law enforcement officer first contacted WECT about the issue, saying the posts of this officer were damaging to the reputation of law enforcement officials as a whole.
Steven Allen Butler has worked for the Village of Bald Head Island for ten years, and has been active on his personal Facebook for most of that time. Several of his profile pictures show him in police and fire uniforms, and some of his cover photos are of public safety vehicles, emphasizing his role as a public safety official.
But at least a dozen posts in recent months have prompted some to question whether Butler is objective enough to evenly enforce the law. Those posts are not publicly viewable, but screenshots were shared with WECT. The posts could easily be viewed as hostile towards minorities, women, transgender people, and anyone who identifies as politically liberal.
There are at least two posts with Confederate flags, noting that April is Confederate History Month, encouraging people to “stand up for your heritage.” Another post notes, “I’m proud of my Confederate ancestors.” Other posts disparage George Floyd, the African American man whose 2020 murder at the hands of police officers prompted world wide protests about police brutality and racism.
Butler has also posted or reposted images that are arguably sexist. In one, a woman is sitting with a kangaroo. The caption beneath the picture reads, “They’re cute and look harmless, but they are loud, incredibly expensive to keep, and absolutely untrainable! The other one is a kangaroo. I don’t know anything about kangaroos.” In another post depicting Vice President Kamala Harris, Butler writes, “Ole Camel tow [sic] Harris is just as worthless as Biden.”
A couple of posts take aim at Dr. Rachel Levine, a pediatrician appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as his Assistant Secretary of Health. Levine is the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate. Butler’s posts mock Levine’s gender orientation as a man who transitioned to a woman.
Additional social media posts ridicule liberals in general and the President and Vice President in particular.
Butler has not yet responded to messages from WECT seeking comment about his posts, which town officials say were deleted after WECT inquired about them.
Bald Head Island does not have a formal social media policy, but is in the process of drafting one. While not officially approved, the draft reads, “The Village of Bald Head Island fully supports the right of employees to maintain personal web pages and a social media presence while not on duty” before going on to list restrictions. Those restrictions, however, primarily apply to not discussing confidential information about the Town or other employees. The policy does prohibit employees from engaging in “improper or unprofessional communications with other employees.”
“The Village contacted the employee today and the social media posts you provided were removed,” Bald Head Island spokeswoman Carin Faulkner said in response to our inquiry about Butler’s social media posts. “The Village expects its public safety officers to act professionally and impartially. The Village does not monitor its employees’ personal social media accounts. The Village has no information to suggest that the officer has not acted professionally or impartially while on duty.”
When similar posts by other police officers across the country prompted public outcry, law enforcement officials have called for police to be held to a higher professional standard, especially on social media. Many say racist, sexist, and other posts hostile to certain demographics underscore the explicit bias of some police officers.
Many governmental units have social media policies that prohibit public employees from making posts and comments online that are critical of race, imply bias or will likely be offensive to many members of the public. Robert Joyce, a professor of Public Law and Government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, says this issue continues to come up in the courts.
“Where the first amendment issue arises is where the government employee is speaking not as part of their jobs, but in another context such as social media on their own time and so on. Speaking not as an employee but as a citizen, but... what they are saying can have an effect on the government’s ability to get the job done,” Joyce explained of the conflict between employees right to free speech versus the government’s best interests. “In the balance, whose interests are more Important in this particular case? The government’s interest in getting a job done without turmoil, without disruption, without undue interference with its ability to serve the public and so on on the one hand, and a government employee or former government employee’s interest and exercising basic constitutional right of free speech?”
Joyce says often, the government employee and employer can come to an agreement on what is appropriate to post on social media and proceed accordingly. But there have been many cases where employees terminated over questionable social media posts have sued a government entity for wrongful termination. The courts must weigh the merits of each case on an individual basis.
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