Squeezing the Free Speech out of Cops


Left and right we see police officers being scorned, shunned, and suspended for social media comments or words in the heat of the moment. As a cop, freedom of speech does not come without consequences. Things are different out there in the crazy world for law enforcement versus ordinary people.

A police officer’s behavior is a reflection of their department. They are “innertwangled.” Put the music to the words, “we are one”, and adopt the jingle and mindset.

Words are ever so powerful. In fact, they are powerful enough to get you in hot water. Many political statements have ended careers and/or made many individuals unemployable. Even more alarming is the fact the internet keeps content in perpetuity. Bonus!

If you are fast enough, you can delete something before someone takes a picture. Why take your chances? Is your emotional response worth risking everything?

Seek out your safe space.

There is one safe place: academia. Sure, there are exceptions, but usually those are determined by fine print in contract clauses.

Professors spout off offensive things constantly without reprisal despite public outcries. Why so? There are several things going for that person including: (1) the law, (2) censorship is not popular in education, (3) tenure, and (4) administration backbone.  Bucket loads of criticism, protests, or public demands may have no impact.

Even their nasty speech is protected under the First Amendment.

So, let’s take this back to cops. Police officers really do not have a safe place. You are on the forefront of the public eye and media attention. There are millions of people watching your every move. It is a little unnerving, but you should be used to it by now.

We all need to not only read the First Amendment, we need to understand it. It is a frequently misunderstood document and the lines can get blurry. It does not mean people can just speak freely without consequences from others. If it impacts your ability to do your job or wrecks public confidence, you might have a problem. Free speech means the government cannot abridge your freedom of speech in cases of being critical of your government. With that in mind, do not incite violence or make threats with your free speech. Muddy, isn’t it?

Supreme Court rulings may not protect you if you speak out about certain things or in specific ways. If your speech hinders the workplace, undermines public trust, or projects values against department ethics you swore to abide by, you could be in jeopardy. There are policies which hold you accountable under a code of conduct.  Do not forget the “catch all” phrases within the regulations of your employee manual.

Additionally, if your excerpts were provocative or affected your peers’ morale, you have an oopsy where you could find yourself not only in the unemployment line, but also burned with a scarlet letter. Or worse, a simple sentence or two winds you up in a civil lawsuit. Remember, you like taking that ski boat out on the lake.

“Take the higher ground.”

As a rookie I had this statement etched in my memory from my FTOs. I was ever so careful in the beginning. Somewhere between the 3-5 year mark, I got bolder.

It takes one incident to dial yourself back. Once I gained a little experience and emotional intelligence on the job, I only used words to shape behavior toward a peaceful conclusion. It is our job to do so. What the public forgets, is that police speech out on the street is direct. We do not have to ask. We do not have to be fluffy.  Law enforcement officers command, demand, and give orders. There is one simple rule for citizens during police contact: obey them.

Who would think words are mightier than the sword? We always joke about the pen being the weapon of choice for putting someone in prison. The art of speech is just as valuable when used to change a conflict into a resolution. Words motivate actions.

There were times I wanted to pop off to someone and there were those instances where I did. But what cost do you pay if your words are not formed in just the right way?

The public holds you to a higher standard.  I do not believe we can ever get rid of this mindset. It feels like it is carved in stone somewhere. No one said it was fair.

However, you signed up for these restrictions in your speech as well as drastic changes to your social life. Yes, you have rights just like anyone else. But remember, you are not like everyone else. You are also maintaining a powerful position in public service where you protect the public, enforce laws, instill morals, and improve your community’s quality of life. That’s a big deal.

Be wise. There are smart ways to speak out against defamatory remarks. If you feel so compelled to comment out of emotion on social media, I would suggest you use a fake account or tone your words to be a very lukewarm temperature. Well, fake accounts can be traced, so scratch that.

You have a right to have emotions, feelings, and anger about injustice, skewed news, and cop haters. Feel it, do not reveal it. That armor is not only for stopping bullets. Sticks and stones, right? Remember your grandma’s words when on social media or lashing out on the street, “if you cannot say anything nice, say nothing.” Well, police officers do not have to be nice in certain street situations. But, burn that in your memory next time you think about free speech while being a keyboard warrior.


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