In what could be an important first amendment case, a Nebraska police officer, Robert E. Henderson, is fighting to keep his job after being fired for his associations with a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. It is only the latest such action taken against officers over their private lives or views.
On one level the case before the Nebraska Supreme Court concerns a technical question of whether a binding arbitration ruling (in favor of Henderson) can be overturned on public policy grounds. However, at its base lies a fundamental question of free speech and association. Henderson should be allowed to have any views or associations so long as they do not interfere with the performance of his job.
Henderson’s problem began when an internal investigation confirmed that he had joined the Klan-affiliated Knights Party. He was fired in March 2006 after 18 years of good service as an officer.
While he won the arbitration, Lancaster County District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront upheld Henderson’s firing.
Notably, another police department recently fired an officer for his off-duty involvement in a porn site with his wife. The department prevailed. Click here
Most people (hopefully) find the association with racist organizations to be reprehensible and disgusting. It is also true that a department has legitimate concerns over such people being able to perform their duties in a non-racist manner. However, the first amendment is not there to protect popular speech or popular associations. So long as there is no evidence that Henderson is acting in a racist manner, he has a right to such views and associations. Otherwise, we can find ourselves on a slippery slope of monitoring officers to ensure that they maintain “appropriate” political and social associations.
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