A large group of Republican state lawmakers issued a letter supporting Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin, saying his free speech rights were violated when he was temporarily replaced over social media posts he made questioning the results of the U.S. presidential election and the effectiveness of masking to prevent COVID-19.

The letter from 69 Republicans and one independent, dated Thursday and addressed to Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck, asserts that Democratic lawmakers trampled Gauvin’s First Amendment rights when they demanded this week that he be placed on administrative leave while the state investigates the posts.

“The divisive attempt by legislative Democrats to force ideological conformity on all around them or face loss of career and livelihood is a betrayal of the office they were elected to hold,” the letter states. The letter was written by Rep. Matthew Harrington, R-Sanford, who is a full-time police officer in Kennebunk.

Those signing the letter include the Republican minority leaders in both the House and the Senate, and Rep. John Andrews, an independent from Paris. Andrews left the Republican Party in December after a dispute over legislative committee assignments.

Gauvin is chief of Capitol Police, a 13-member force tasked with providing security in the State House and Capitol complex.

Posts, memes and reactions Gauvin shared on Facebook supported false claims about the November election results, questioned the effectiveness of masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and expressed sympathy for a post that supported the use of deadly force by police as means to stop Black Lives Matter protests. The posts were revealed in a report by the alternative news magazine, Mainer, formally known as the Bollard.

In November, Gauvin posted that he had “zero confidence” in the results of the election that saw Joe Biden defeat President Trump. He also shared a post that referred to the election as “a psychological operation of epic proportions.”

The posts were revealed just as state houses across the country were bracing for possible violent protests in the wake of an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 following a rally with former President Donald Trump.

In the wake of the insurrection, the FBI warned police in all 50 states that state capitol buildings could be targets for additional violence by those protesting the results of the 2020 elections.

The personal account with the posts has since been deleted and Gauvin issued an apology for his actions last Friday. Democrats demanded this week that he be placed on administrative leave, and on Wednesday Sauschuck temporarily replaced him with Lt. Robert Elliot, a 32-year veteran of the force.

Both Sauschuck and Gov. Janet Mills have said Gauvin’s apology was warranted, and Mills said the posts were troubling.

Katy England, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said Friday that Elliot was heading the Capitol Police and that Sauschuck had received the letter from the Republican lawmakers about the investigation into Gauvin’s posts.

“The review is being conducted in an independent manner, by state government human resource professionals, and is grounded in state policy,” England said in an email. She said a time frame for when the review would be completed has not been established.

State policy stipulates that “personal off-duty use of social media technologies may be the proper subject of state review and corrective action where there is a nexus between the personal use and the workplace.” The policy goes on to state that personal use of social media outside of work is subject to First Amendment protections.

“However, where such personal use is related to subject matter pertinent to state employment, it must be conducted in such a manner that no impression is created that the employee is speaking on behalf of the agency,” the policy states.

In recent months police officers across the country have come under increasing criticism for their misuse of both official and personal social media accounts. Labor Relations Information Systems, an Oregon company that provides training and information for public safety officials and unions, has published a podcast with a series of rules on social media posts for managers, union officials and law enforcement officers.

Will Aitchison, the founder and executive director of Labor Relations Information Systems, discussed social media posts in a podcast after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis last summer.

Aitchison warns in the podcast that police and other public safety employees often overestimate the extent to which their social media posts are protected under the First Amendment.

“Public safety employees are often absolutely certain that what they say on social media is constitutionally protected and that certainty is without the benefit of having read one case on the issue,” Aitchison said. He said the pace of disciplinary actions against police officers for social media posts and the severity of the punishment is increasing.

“Before you get out there and say what you think needs to be said about the incredible disruptions that we are going through in our society right now,” he said, “before you comment on a protest or a politician or any of the players in this national drama that we are in right now – think.”

He added that social media posts should be done thoughtfully and carefully. “If you post things thoughtlessly, if you post things just to stir the pot, if you post things just because you think they need saying, that’s when you are putting your jobs at risk,” he warned.

In their letter Thursday, Republicans argue that Gauvin did not violate any state policies and his right to express himself freely online, as long as he does not present those opinions as the position of the agency he leads, should not be a subject for criticism.

“As Capitol Police chief, Chief Gauvin has done an admirable job,” the Republican letter reads. “He has behaved professionally and without favor toward the safety of every person working and visiting the Capitol.”

Gauvin previously served on the Portland Police Department, starting in 1980 and retiring as a captain in 2006. His time on the Portland force overlapped with Sauschuck’s. He joined the department in 1997 and rose through the ranks to become chief in 2011. Sauschuck left to become Portland’s assistant city manager before joining Mills’ administration as commissioner of public safety in 2019.

According to the state’s online open records portal, Maine Open Checkbook, Gauvin was paid a salary of $90,000 in 2019 and his total benefit package, including retirement, health and life insurance, is valued at $112,418.

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