One man’s criticism of police on social media resulted in the denial of his license application.
Can the government go after your livelihood because it didn’t like the way you criticized officials on Facebook? In Maine, the answer is “yes.” For now, unless the Supreme Court acts, Joshua Gray will be denied the opportunity to work as a private investigator in Maine simply because he called into question the official explanation of a police shooting.
Joshua Gray is a licensed PI in Massachusetts and wanted to expand his business into Maine, his home state. When he read about a police shooting outside Augusta in 2017, he had reasons to suspect the official narrative. After police confronted a man suspected of armed robbery, the man rammed his car into a police cruiser leading police to shoot and kill both him and his passenger. One of the officers involved in the shooting was well-known to Joshua and he had long worried that the officer would eventually abuse his power.
Joshua examined the evidence on his own and began posting on Facebook and Medium. As more evidence came to light, he corrected some previous posts. Eventually, the state attorney general claimed that the shootings were justified and declined to press charges against any of the officers. To Joshua this was sad, but not shocking. According to his research, in Maine’s entire history every police involved shooting has been found to be justified. At about the same time, Joshua was preparing his application for a PI license.
To get that license, Joshua applied to the Maine Department of Public Safety in 2018. But that application was rejected by the Chief of the Maine State Police based solely on Joshua’s comments from the previous year. The Chief claimed that his comments were factually incorrect, even though Joshua had gone out of his way to make corrections when new information was released. He also objected to Joshua’s characterization of the shooting of the passenger as “murder.”
Joshua’s application was rejected because the Chief said he failed to demonstrate “good moral character.” Many occupational licenses have such a requirement, and if that sounds incredibly vague to you, that’s because it is. The standard allows boards to deny licenses for almost any reason, sometimes because of very old criminal convictions or even arrests that never led to criminal charges.
The Institute for Justice represented two Pennsylvania women in a winning lawsuit after the Pennsylvania cosmetology board rejected their applications. In that case, the chair of the board testified that what people would consider good moral character could change based on their race or religion. In Joshua’s case, it is obvious that the Chief considers harsh criticism of his department a sign of moral failing.
Joshua did nothing more than voice his honest concerns about abuse of power. If the police were to target Joshua for his speech by arresting him, they would have a losing civil rights lawsuit on their hands. If one of the officers tried to sue him for libel or defamation, they would probably have a hard time finding an attorney to take on their case. As a general rule, the government cannot target people because of their speech. But shockingly Maine’s courts agreed with the board and said that Joshua’s criticism was not entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.
One man’s battle against a licensing board in a far corner of the United States may seem remote, but the precedent being set in his case could affect millions of Americans. More than 1 in 5 American workers need a license to work in their chosen field. And again, many of these licenses have vague character clauses.
If boards are allowed to troll social media to seek out reasons to deny licenses, then such denials could be distressingly frequent. Adding to the concern, applications for licenses usually come at the end of years of schooling or apprenticeship. Being denied a license leaves workers with skills they cannot use without breaking the law and practicing without a license is often a crime punishable with significant fines and even time in jail.
Joshua still has his Massachusetts license, but he’s been denied an important opportunity to expand his business to better support himself. Furthermore, individuals often turn to PIs when they cannot get help from the police. Letting the police keep their critics out of the PI profession serves no purpose. It’s a clear abuse of power and the First Amendment.
The Institute for Justice recently appealed Joshua’s case to the Supreme Court, which will decide later this fall if it will hear it. Hopefully, the Court will make it clear that neither police, nor any other government official, can deny someone the right to work just because they don’t like to be criticized.
I am an Director of Media Relations at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm. Follow me on Twitter @andrewwimer. As a member of IJ’s communications
I am an Director of Media Relations at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm. Follow me on Twitter @andrewwimer. As a member of IJ’s communications team, I promote litigation that protects and expands liberty for clients across the United States. Prior to starting with IJ in 2018, I served as a speechwriter for a cabinet secretary and before that spent a decade on Capitol Hill serving in communications and legislative roles for several members of the House of Representatives. My work has been published by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, and numerous other newspapers nationwide.