The Free Speech of Bad Cops

Just how stupid can a cop be to tell a journalism student doing a ride around with him that the people he’s there to “serve and protect” are animals?  And then even worse?  From the Philadelphia Inquirer, via David Post at VC :

Five Philadelphia police officers were fired yesterday for alleged misconduct, including two incidents in which officers were accused of using racial slurs.

Among them was William Thrasher, 24, who allegedly called African Americans in his 22d District “animals” and worse.

Thrasher, who had been on the force for two years, was quoted by a Temple University journalism student who was riding with him on patrol for a class assignment. . . . During the ride-along, Thrasher allegedly referred to the violence in his predominantly African American district as “typical n- s-” or “TNS.”

Putting aside for the moment the appalling language, and the even more appalling stupidity of any cop who would use that language in front of a student journalist, Post is outraged that the cops were fired for the exercise of their 1st Amendment rights of free speech.

We’ve come to a pretty unfortunate place when the words “First Amendment” do not even show up in an article like this. Putting aside consideration of what kind of jackass would say stuff like that when he’s got a journalism student in the back seat for a ride-along, firing a cop because he said nasty things to a ride-along journalist seems fairly outrageous to me — without any showing that his conduct on the job was in any way deficient.

When commenters to his post not only failed to circle the wagons around him, but disagree in droves, Post was driven to update his concerns:

Well, I must say I’m very, very surprised at the comments here. The vast majority of VC readers (or at least VC commenters) don’t seem to find any First Amendment issue when the government of Philadelphia fires a policeman for remarks that he made in a conversation with a journalist. I’m stupefied by that, to be candid. That’s what I mean when I said “we’ve come to a pretty unfortunate place” — the First Amendment, which one would think would quite obviously protect a government employee’s speech, has simply lost much of its power, and most people seem to take it for granted that it doesn’t apply here. . . Silly me, but I thought the First Amendment meant that the state couldn’t punish you for the content of your speech without a truly compelling reason for doing so.

Being a huge free speech advocate, I completely understand David Post’s point.  That, of course, doesn’t change the fact that he’s absolutely wrong and, well, “silly” doesn’t suffice. 

First, this was not a person who happened to be a police officer, but a man wearing a shield and carrying a gun, driving around in a car with fancy lights owned by the Philly police department, in the performance of his duty as a law enforcement officer.  During the period that he enjoys the authority granted the shield, he forgoes the freedom that he personally possesses as an individual when he struts the streets in his Fubu football jersey.  In other words, when he is exercising his authority as a cop, it is not a vindication of his personal prejudices.

Second, the problem with his uttering this garbage is that he did so in front of a journalism student.  He just failed to intelligence test to be a rock, no less a cop.  The exercise of discretion is a fundamental component of the police performance, and his choice of words to utter makes it clear that he has no discretion, and is therefore unqualified for the position.

And finally, it’s not the words themselves, but the mindset belied by the words, that reflects a bias wholly incompatible with the performance of his job as a Philly cop.  He cannot be trusted to protect and serve people he feels are subhuman, so unworthy of his effort.  And he was walking around the streets of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, with a gun? 

I fully support the officer’s right to utter such words all he wants, no matter how disgusting this cretin cop may be.  He just can’t do so in the uniform of a police officer, with shield and gun, enjoying the authority conferred on a cop by law while holding the attitudes the words reflect.  Let him mutter them to himself in his bathrobe swilling beer all he likes, but he has not right to be a cop while he does so.

5 thoughts on “The Free Speech of Bad Cops

  1. Deborah

    Police are hired to ‘protect and serve’. When they are so arrogant and free to make racial slurs as a matter of course; imagine what their conduct is during high stress situations. Think they only resort to racial slurs when apprehending suspects? Bias must be left behind when the uniform and GUN are put on just like any other profession. Police have broad authority and are free to use brutality
    too often not penalized but applauded. Scrutiny comes only when serious injuries result, everything else is fair game. Since 9/11, such tactics have become the ‘norm’ and citizens are being considered ‘potential’ animals to be controlled.

  2. J.C. Johnson

    There is never a time where bigoted conduct is appropriate for a law enforcement officer. When we swear our oath, we are on duty until we die, retire, quit, or are fired.

  3. TMann

    Deborah, well said and you are right. I remember when it was the exception not the rule, of officers looking down on the public.

    [Ed. note: Nazi references deleted.]

  4. Marc J. Randazza

    Look on the bright side. A full time law professor is actually willing to stand up for First Amendment rights. I think its better that Post errs on that side of the coin. He must have tenure.

  5. Jason Q

    We cannot give what we do not have. How can these police officers gain respect if they themselves don’t know how to do so? Brian Jennings has an axe to grind. Brian Jennings is the author of Censorship, a book about how conservative talk radio is a target of censorship by the Obama administration and others. The books website,, has more details. The book comes out right before the Henry Waxman’s investigation of talk radio, and also an upcoming set of FCC hearings on the matter. Largely, it has to do with conservative talk radio run amok, which is restricting free speech.

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