Senator Kennedy: Gretna chief did ‘the right thing’ in firing 2 officers

Senator Kennedy: Gretna chief did ‘the right thing’ in firing 2 officers

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A Louisiana senator who has been critical of Congresswoman Aleaxandria Ocasio-Cortez said the Gretna Police chief did the right thing in firing two officers for a threat made on Facebook.

But, a local law professor said free speech rights could become an issue in a case that has gained national attention.

The officers were fired over the post Monday (July 23), a move Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) said he approves of.

“The short answer is yes, the long answer is hell yes,” Kennedy said.

While Kennedy said he does not agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s politics, 14-year veteran officer Charles Rispoli needed to be disciplined after he called Cortez a “vile idiot," and posted that she “needs a round and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.”

“When you’re a police officer, and your job is to protect the public,” Kennedy said “You carry a firearm, you can’t just talk about shooting somebody."

Another officer, three-year veteran Angelo Varisco, was also fired for liking the post.

However, Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said the case may not be so clear and could bring up free speech issues -- the same that exonerated a deputy constable in Texas in 1981, when Ardith McPherson was accused of making threats against then-president Ronald Reagan.

“She was discharged and brought a case in federal court arguing that her first amendment right to free speech was violated by her discharge, and she won,” Ciolino said.

Still, that perceived threat was made to a coworker and not on social media, which didn’t exist at the time.

“This police officer with the comments out there, may have a more difficult time performing his duties,” Ciolino said.

According to social media expert Sarah Hugg Centorino, there is no such thing as internet privacy and inflammatory posts can go viral in a mouse click.

“Social media in the world has 3 billion users active every month, and Facebook has 2.3 billion of those,” Centorino said.

And while social media is powerful tool that is growing more powerful every day, that power can cut both ways.

“In many cases, the best thing that could have been done is apologize, and to mean it,” Centorino said.

But such a statement may not have made a difference for Arthur Lawson, Gretna’s police chief who was determined to make a point.

“This has been an embarrassment to our department, and they acted in a manner that was unacceptable, alluding to a violent act being conducted against a sitting member of the U.S. government,” Lawson said.

At this point, it’s not known if the officers will appeal to a higher court.

Lawson said that the officers were “at will” employees with no civil service protection. Any possible redress for the terminated officers would have to occur in civil court.

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