Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife officer Andrew Ward shared his dinner experience on Facebook Friday, and the post went viral.
Officer Ward explained how he was asked to leave an Outback Steakhouse in Cleveland, Tennessee after another diner told management she felt unsafe.
Stewart Harris teaches constitutional law at Lincoln Memorial University's Duncan School of Law. Harris said the interaction can be approached from the perspective of the officer, the restaurant and the other diners.
"Generally speaking, people in Tennessee who have a permit are then empowered, they have the right, if you will, to carry their guns pretty much wherever they wish in Tennessee. That's one issue," Harris said. "On the other side is the right of a private property owner to decide whether he or she wants to have guns on his or her property."
Harris said the law calls restaurants a public accommodation, and even though it invited the public to come in, it still has the right to exclude firearms as long as it follows state statutes such as posting a notice.
However, since the wildlife officer Ward was on duty, additional laws apply.
TWRA's Administrative Directive 11 paragraph XI states, "Officers shall carry their sidearm whenever they are on uniformed patrol."
If wildlife officers are on duty during meals, then they must remain armed while in uniform, TWRA Region IV public information officer Matt Cameron said.
"He was wearing his uniform, he was carrying his weapon and Tennessee law says he can go anywhere he wants to with that weapon," Harris said.
In a statement, Outbeak Steakhouse admitted the manager made the wrong decision. Outback Steakhouse spokesperson Elizabeth Watts said this in a statement to 10News:
"We've always allowed uniformed law enforcement officers to carry their side arms inside our restaurants. A manager made a mistake and we have discussed this with her. We have contacted the guest personally and apologized."
Harris said that in addition to acting in a matter incongruent with company policy, the manager at Outback may have inadvertently violated state law.
"Apparently, there was a mistake of company policy, and it was probably something close to a violation of Tennessee law when it comes to excluding a law enforcement officer because he's carrying," Harris said.
Harris also said the patron who told Outback employees that the presence of the armed officer made her uncomfortable had the right to voice her concerns.
"Any member of the general public has a right under the First Amendment to the constitution to complain, to speak freely about what he or she feel, and if this other restaurant patron was frightened by the presence of law enforcement officer with a gun, that person certainly had a right to suggest to the restaurant manager that the restaurant might want to kick him out," Harris said. "At that point, however, the restaurant was not obliged to do so, and I think that's where the mistake was probably made."
However, wildlife officer Ward said he has fully accepted Outback's apology and hopes that others recognize the restaurant employees simply made a mistake.