Start over on Facebook firings

The Observer editorial board

City of Charlotte

It’s very possible that Charlotte Fire Department deputy chief Jeff Dulin will be fired as soon as Monday for sharing on Facebook an offensive image about former Olympian Bruce Jenner. City Manager Ron Carlee has left himself little room to choose any other action.

Carlee fired Charlotte fire investigator Crystal Eschert in November for a Facebook post made in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting. In that post, Eschert questioned whether the White House and civil rights advocates would have spoken up if the Ferguson victim were white. “So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing,” Eschert wrote. “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!”

Carlee said then that Eschert’s post was “inherently discriminatory” and “inflammatory.” The comments, he said, were in conflict “with our responsibility to serve all members of the community.”

The same is true of Dulin’s post, in which he shares an image that shows Jenner on the cover of a Wheaties box in 1976 juxtaposed with a photoshopped recent image of Jenner – who is believed to be transitioning to a woman – on a box of Froot Loops cereal.

It’s offensive and hurtful. It’s harmful to the city’s image. Perhaps worst of all in Carlee’s mind, it allows a group of people to wonder if the fire department or city might discriminate against them in some way.

But Dulin, a 32-year department veteran, should not be fired for his post. Eschert should not have been fired for hers.

Make no mistake, both posts were out-of-bounds, and both posters should have known that the minute you hit send on Facebook or anything else, what’s private is no longer private. And no, it doesn’t matter that Dulin was merely sharing someone else’s offensive creation. If you repost it, you endorse it, unless you signal otherwise.

But did this post, as well as Eschert’s, rise to the level of a firing offense? No. Both merit a suspension, along with sensitivity training and a public apology.

That didn’t happen with Eschert, who says her firing was in retaliation for her complaints about the quality of renovations at a Fire Department building on Graham Street. Carlee and department officials deny this, but her termination – the first for violating the city’s social media policy – seemed excessive.

Certainly, judgments like these are subjective. Some Facebook posts could be grounds for dismissal, like any abhorrent speech would be. But by setting the bar for firing so low for Eschert, the city has done so with all of its employees. One-time poor choices will result in termination when they should result in severe but lesser punishment.

Carlee should hit the pause button now. Suspend Dulin. Give Eschert back her job. Craft a new approach to social media and speech that punishes mistakes, but does so more reasonably.