There is an interesting first amendment case filed in Georgia where a police sergeant is contesting his termination after flying the Confederate flag at her home. It is of course perfectly legal to fly a confederate flag and Silvia Cotriss, a 20-year-veteran of the police, said that she was simply celebrating her heritage. However, her neighbors found the flag offensive and complained.
The case raises very serious free speech concerns. On July 11th, a man said that he spotted the flag in Cotriss’ backyard for walking his daughter and son to pre-school. He wrote to Roswell Police Chief Rusty Grant, who had been visiting various black churches in the area after the Dallas police massacre. A complaint was lodged against Cotriss and she was questioned by detectives on why she felt the need to fly the flag. It is a curious investigation because Cotriss has every right to fly the flag for any number of reasons from Southern pride or historical interest. She was told that the flag had negative connotations and was inappropriate. In her termination, Capt. Helen Dunkin of the internal affairs office wrote that Cotriss had “engaged in conduct that was unbecoming, which brought discredit to the Roswell Police Department when she flew” the flag in her yard. A few days later, she was fired.
Cotriss has a strong foundation for a free speech challenge. Her flying the flag at her private residence raises core first amendment issues. 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 (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here).
In this case, you have a core private speech claim by the public employee. She did not bring the flag to work and did not associate the flag with her public service. There is no question that this would be protected speech in the case of an ordinary citizen punished for flying a flag. The question is whether the status as a police officer makes such speech sanctionable.
What do you think?