Lost in the discussion on tensions between the police and communities is another intriguing debate about whether uniformed civil servants or public safety employees can express their personal opinions on government time. It’s an interesting debate, and it carries all sorts of really sticky First Amendment challenges, especially in this age of social media and ubiquitous ranting on Twitter feeds.
Everyone with Internet access wants to get in on the action, for example. And everyone thinks they’re either the next Glenn Beck or the next Jon Stewart or the next Wendy Williams. As a result, we’re in a hyper-vocalized environment amplified by digital media, with a million different ways of self-expression.
This is where we start realizing that, oh, public servants like cops and fire men and women are human beings, too. And human beings are flawed. And, human beings in this day and age really want to be heard. So, it should really be no surprise when NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as a form of free speech.
But it should be disturbing when that’s done in uniform. Officers have a Constitutional right to free speech – but, only when they’re not in uniform performing their duties. That, thus far, they’ve gotten away with it says much about their boss’ lack of leadership.
Enter Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed who wasted no time firing his fire chief for writing what was described as “homophobic” language in a 2013 book he wrote. Reports Kirsten West Savali in The Root:
Reed fired Cochran on Jan. 6 as a result of homo-antagonistic language in Cochran’s 2013 book, Who Told You That You Were Naked? In it, Cochran describes homosexuality as “vile” and “the opposite of purity” and goes on to compare it to “all other forms of sexual perversion.”
Upon learning about the book late last year, Reed initially suspended Cochran, who had also gifted several firefighters with the book. And while Cochran has framed his subsequent termination in general terms as a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion, Reed’s stated reasons for termination were much more specific: 1) Cochran didn’t get clearance through the city’s ethics committee prior to publishing the book—something Cochran vehemently denies; 2) Some of the language contained in the book is offensive to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; and 3) It leaves the city vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits.
Obviously, there are some church and state issues in there. But this is an example of an elected official pretty much putting his foot down on public safety servants expressing their views while going about the business of protecting citizens they are going to disagree with.