There is a free speech controversy brewing out of Detroit where an unnamed police sergeant is under investigation for expressing his opinion about the controversial Beyonce performance in the halftime show of the Superbowl. Beyonce dressed herself and her dancers like Black Panthers and formed a X in an apparent reference to Malcolm X. Police around the country objected to the glorification of an organization that has advocated violence against police. The sergeant compared the performance to one featuring the KKK on Facebook and is now facing possible discipline.
I have previously written about concerns that public employees are increasingly being disciplined for actions in their private lives or views or associations outside of work. We have previously seen teachers, students and other public employees fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines, appearing on television shows in bikinis, or having a career in the adult entertainment industry.
In this case, the sergeant posted a photo of Beyonce’s dancers above a group wearing white Ku Klux Klan robes and wrote: “So if the dance troupe at the top is ok for this years’ halftime show, then the one at the bottom should be ok for next years’, right?”
The sergeant’s point does not appear to advocate that the KKK should be in the next show but rather to raise the comparative question of why the Black Panthers are permissible as a model while the KKK is not. One can clearly disagree with the comparison but it is an example of pure political and social speech by someone in their personal time. He was reported by his co-workers to Police Chief James Craig. However, the objection is to the sergeant’s political views — views that reflect the overwhelming anger of police organizations toward Beyonce who they view as relying on police protection at her events but glorifies an anti-police organization.
As in the earlier cases, these investigations create an intended chilling effect on employees who are less likely to speak their views outside of work. I am not sure why this matter was not addressed as an exercise of free speech by the department. What is most disturbing is the lack of a clear line as to the extent to which officers and other public employees are allowed to engage in free speech in their private lives. This investigation would seem to convey that you speak your mind at your own peril.