Dear The Stranger, Free Speech is a thing – even for off-duty cops.
Unless you have real evidence that this person is letting his politics interfere with his work, or spending time on Facebook when he’s on the public clock, then this really shouldn’t be a story.
The idea of employers – or the press – monitoring worker’s Facebook pages for “wrong” political opinions is far more horrifying, and far more of a threat to freedom, then anything some jerk cop writes on Facebook.
Let me note that in this post, when I refer to “freedom of speech” I’m referring not to First Amendment law, but to what I’d call a “free speech culture,” by which I mean a culture in which people can feel free to speak out on controversial issues without facing unreasonable and disproportionate reprisals. I worry that in our current culture – in which partisan hatred and fury has become so ordinary (on both sides) – only those with the thick skins and secure positions will feel comfortable speaking out.
Although there’s no government censorship going on here, we can and should want more for free speech than just “no one was thrown in jail.”
An example of what I mean by a “unreasonable and disproportionate reprisal” is having a well-known newspaper comb through your Facebook feed in order to cherry-pick the worst-sounding quotes.1 This reporting includes calling your bosses to inform them of what you’ve been writing on your Facebook page, and getting them to “consider… a formal investigation into” you.
Suddenly your Facebook activity is exposed to thousands of people you never expected to be scrutinizing your words, the pages you’ve linked, and what you “liked.” Total strangers on social media and in the Stranger’s comments are questioning your intelligence, your competence, and your worth as a human being.
It’s a seriously unkind thing to do, and newspapers like the Stranger shouldn’t do this lightly. There are obviously cases where someone is enough of a public figure so that any political opinion they express, regardless of context, is a reasonable news story. But “police Sergeant”simply isn’t in that category.
Now, there are cases in which reporting on the political opinions of a police officer might be important because they directly call into question if Hall is a suitable person to be a police officer. For example, if Sergeant Hall had called for police to engage in illegal beatdowns of civilians. But Hall didn’t say anything of the sort; he just spouted the typical opinions one hears every day from law-and-order Republicans. And just being a right-winger is not enough to mean someone can’t be a cop.
I really can’t think of any reason why it’s the public’s business to know what Hall’s opinion of Obama is (a point the Stranger emphasized in the headline). I don’t want that sort of thing reported about right-wing cops in newspapers, any more than I want that a left-wing cop hates George Bush to be reported in the National Review.
I’m not saying that free speech can or should mean freedom from consequence. But the consequences should be proportional. If the people who read Hall’s Facebook feed criticize him, think less of him, argue with him, or even decide they don’t want to be friends with him anymore, that’s fine. I’ve seen conservatives treat criticism as if it were censorship, and that’s ridiculous.
But when ordinary citizens – including midlevel cops – can’t yak about politics on Facebook without worrying that reporters will be searching for cherry-picked quotes or calling their bosses, that’s unreasonable. It’s disproportionate. And it’s not helpful to a free speech society.
- For example, reporter Ansel Herz highlighted two ugly-sounding quotes from a Facebook comment Hall wrote, but didn’t highlight this much more reasonable quote, although it’s in the same comment: “If it turns out that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michel Brown while he was surrendering, then he should be prosecuted for murder. I don’t think that will be the case, but I’m willing to see it as a possibility.” [↩]