February 25, 2006

Free Speech in Texas

Just this week, in Houston, Texas, we have had a new challenge to our right of free speech.

A Houston police officer publicly criticized Houston police regulations with regard to police chases which he thinks endanger the public. He was muzzled and assigned to a desk job. A US District Court Judge has ruled in favor of the police department and told the officer he needs to shut up. The judge's ruling is being appealed on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Where is the line that a democratic society can draw that would effectively define what this police officer can or cannot say? If he had spoken about the policies privately, would it have gained his criticism any more credibility or acceptance? Does the issue of public safety override in this case? Is this police officer essentially a whistleblower, speaking up against all these wild and dramatic car chases that have become mesmerizing events on television? If we muzzle his speech in this case, are we not muzzling our right to know what government does that may or may not be in the public interest?

Police forces are para-military organizations that run on a chain of command basis, and I know they must have discipline in the ranks. But isn't this a case where the ability to exercise free speech is imperative? If we cannot allow individual police officers to question such a major police practice, one that certainly impinges directly on the public safety, then how will we ever obtain knowledge and information about such practices and their faults? If a woman police officer spoke out about egregious gender discrimination within a police department, would she be guilty of insubordination or should she be allowed her exercise of free speech? Is it any different that a police officer believes these highly publicized chases are endangering the public?

It's not like there is some kind of wild revolt happening within police departments around the country. This is a very specific criticism made by an officer about a very specific practice. If he considers it an illegal order to chase a suspect to the point of threatening the safety of the public, then he should have the right to say so. In the same way, a soldier has the right to refuse an illegal order if he believes it is wrong.

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