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Jerry Davich: Arrested free speech on social media?

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 28, 2014 6:26AM

Should a public servant be held more accountable than others for their social media comments?

Or should anyone be allowed to share their true, unfiltered feelings about any social issue, even if that person happens to be, say, a police officer? More pointedly, should two standards be used — one for public servants and another for everyone else?

This issue is at the heart of a heated exchange of comments on Facebook involving a Hobart police officer who commented on someone else’s post regarding a newspaper story on drug addiction deaths in Northwest Indiana.

“Drugs are a choice. If you die it’s your fault!” commented Hobart police officer Corey Hanrahan. “People don’t have addictions. They have propensities which they choose to act upon. To say you’re addicted is to fabricate an excuse.”

“Drug addicts should do us all a favor and kill themselves!” he wrote on a post from a Chesterton woman who has two sons who are addicts.

The woman is a member of the Friends and Families of Addicts support group, which meets in Porter County. It’s a wonderful support group and I’ve attended meetings in the past for previous columns. The members are truly good people with family members who’ve made truly bad choices.

“Corey, I have addicted sons. They don’t deserve to die,” replied the woman on the Facebook thread. “That is a very cold attitude you have there. Those words are very hurtful to me. They are good kids and made bad choices. They are people and yes they made choices that took over their lives.”

Others from the support group quickly joined the discussion, defending the woman and slamming Hanrahan for his “cruel, mean, insensitive” comments. They also contacted the Hobart police department to lodge complaints against Hanrahan.

“Some members of the support group feel that not enough is being done about his callous remarks,” said the woman, who I’m not revealing to protect her privacy. “It concerns all of us that a police officer could respond in such a rude and unfeeling way. What if he comes across an addict who is overdosing?”

Meaning, that the police officer’s personal feelings would trump his professional duties to “serve and protect” the public, especially if it’s a junkie whose life — or death — means nothing to the officer.

It’s a valid question, but one that could be asked of any public servant or first responder. I know plenty of them who couldn’t care less about such addicts on a personal level but who, rightly, feel a professional obligation to serve their duties anyway.

Then again, not many of them were bold (or insensitive) enough to voice those feelings publicly via social media, as Hanrahan did.

“The path to addiction starts at home,” Hanrahan further wrote on that Facebook post. “If people were better parents and if other people wouldn’t have children when they are clearly not fit to have them, we wouldn’t begin to have these types of problems.”

This exchange caught the attention of Noah Back, whose 25-year-old son Jared died from a heroin overdose in 2006. He’s been a vocal and respected advocate ever since.

“I am appalled and very disturbed about Cory Hanrahan’s comments… that we as parents should not have had children if they were going to be drug addicts,” Back told me. “He was basically saying, as parents of children who use drugs, we are all failures.”

“I did everything I knew how to keep him out of the drug lifestyle, so I don’t consider myself a failure as a parent,” said Back, who also filed a complaint with Hobart PD. “We all got the same form letter in response, saying Hanrahan had been disciplined.”

Back called Hobart PD and was told that Hanrahan’s discipline would not be revealed publicly.

“I do not believe that any public servant who deals with drug addicts should have the attitude that Cory Hanrahan has. It is my opinion that he should be dismissed from the Hobart P.D.,” said Back, who is considering a demonstration against the department.

I contacted Hobart PD and was told that Hanrahan was disciplined within the department.

“The level of discipline was selected to ensure that there would be no future indiscretions, and to educate the officer on being more sensitive to the issue,” replied Hobart Police Chief Rick Zormier.

While the chief said he is embarrassed by Hanrahan’s comments, he admitted that he doesn’t understand the need to “socialize” via digital media.

“People tend to say things to each other electronically that they would never say in person,” Zormier told me. “Is it how they feel or is it some crazy, random thought that pops into their head at the moment?”

Good question, and I say both answers apply.

His viewpoint echoes millions of other Americans who don’t use social media. But it will do nothing to stop the addiction to Facebook for millions of other users.

“The officer posted his profession and place of employment on his Facebook page, and when he did that he had a responsibility to keep his personal thoughts from negatively impacting him or the department,” Zormier said, nailing down the real point here.

“In this case, (Hanrahan’s comments) were clearly inappropriate and insensitive,” he added. “As police officers, we take an oath to support the Constitution, and to not only protect rights of society but all the individuals in it. It is just as important to protect the individuals that do not like us, respect us, or that we disagree with.”

“In this case, the police officer made a mistake, further proof that we are all human.”

So, should Hanrahan be disciplined for his comments? Of course. Fired? I don’t think so. I don’t blame him for having those feelings — it’s his free speech right — even if he’s wrong, which he is.

Still, it’s the bigger picture that intrigues me.

Feel free to share your comments with me directly or via, ahem, Facebook. Or call in to my Casual Fridays radio show today at noon, at 769-9577, on 89.1-FM.

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