Cops Wearing Their Taxpayer-Issued Uniforms for Political Purposes Is Not Protected Speech

Fargo police officers and firefighters packed the Fargo City Hall Monday night, May 20, to listen to a debate over increases for the employees of the two departments. Barry Amundson / The Forum

Earlier this week I was critical of members of the Fargo Police Department for showing up en masse, and in uniform, to a meeting of the Fargo City Commission at which a pay raise for the cops was being decided.

Today Waylon Hedegaard, head of the North Dakota chapter of the AFL-CIO, accuses me wanting to suppress the 1st amendment rights of police officers.

An excerpt:

Rob Port’s recent opinion column criticized police and firefighters for attending a city commission meeting while (gasp) wearing their uniforms thus intimidating the commission. He then called for this practice to be stopped.

Sadly, there seems to be a growing trend among those on the right and their self-appointed mouthpieces to demand all public employees be submissive to their governmental employers as if they should just be happy that they have a job. This is absurd. No one should have to sit quietly in the face of their government, especially not its employees.

Hedegaard is attacking a straw man. Literally an argument I did not make.

My position is not that cops should be silent on politics, generally, or publicly policy which impacts them specifically. Far from it. “I have no problem with cops, or anyone else for that matter, making their voices heard,” is what I wrote. “They have the same rights as the rest of us. But just as there are strict prohibitions on using U.S. military uniforms in politics, there ought to be similar restrictions on using law enforcement uniforms and equipment.”

Police power should not be used toward political ends. That’s what the Fargo cops did, and it was wrong.

A police officer’s uniform is a tool, provided by the taxpayers, which projects power and authority into the sort of chaotic situations cops respond to. While the exercise of that power and authority is appropriate while cops are doing their jobs, it is not appropriate to be used in a political context.

Cops have the privilege of wearing the uniform when they’re going about the public’s business. When they’re going about their own business, they should wear their own clothes.

Otherwise, are we going to let the cops start using squad cars to drive around their preferred candidates for public office?

C’mon.

There was not a thing in the world wrong with the cops showing up at that city commission meeting and urging a pay increase. If they all wanted to wear t-shirts or ribbons or something to communicate to the commissioners that the cops were present in the crowd that also would have been fine.

But they shouldn’t use the uniform for that purpose.

Police power should not be used toward political ends. That’s what the Fargo cops did, and it was wrong.

As for the 1st amendment, I’d point out again that the various branches of the military have very strict regulations about the use of uniforms and other equipment in political activities. Based on the responses I received to my original post, many police departments in our region also have restrictions on wearing uniforms outside of duty time.

These policies are not 1st amendment violations, because those uniforms and equipment (along with the authority they represent) are provided by the taxpayers and should be used for political business only. Not the private political agendas of the cops.

Again, cops can have all the free speech they want. On their own time. In their own clothes.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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