Start like a jackrabbit, finish in front of it… Should we sack police for out-of-hours comments on social media?

I’ll start with the blunt version of my argument: the NSW police who were involved in derogatory comments about Greens MLA, Jenny Leong, should be sacked.  No part of the argument below should be read to contradict this blunt position, but the problem is significantly more complex than many people are suggesting.

First, there are a few different categories of comment involved and different categories of actor.  Then there are questions about to what extent an employer should be able to ‘reach into’ an employee’s private life.  There are questions about the limits of political speech, and what are public standards of debate.  And, lurking beneath all of these questions, there are difficult questions about censorship.

‘Difficult’ for other people, that is.  I love censorship.  Can’t get enough of it.

Let us start with getting to grips with the different kinds of comment involved in the case.

  1. There is a message from ‘Jack Zane’ directed to Ms Leong. Ms Leong posted a political advert about police and sniffer dogs to her Facebook page, and Zane responded to that image with a racist slur.
  2. There is an image that Jack Zane posted on his own Facebook account of Ms Leong and racist commentary.
  3. There is an image posted by an identifiable police officer of Ms Leong with the statement ‘one condom could have prevented this from happening’.
  4. There are non-verbal interactions with these images, such as ‘likes’ on Facebook.
  5. There are messages from police officers on activist websites providing false information about the location of sniffer dogs.

And then there are three different kinds of people involved:

  1. A person who has disguised his identity (Jack Zane).
  2. People who are members of the police force who have not disguised their identity, but who engage with social media outside of work hours.
  3. People who work in support capacity for the police force (such as in human resources), who engage with social media outside of work hours.

The police are put in a position of authority and trust.  In exchange, we expect police officers to demonstrate a high level of personal integrity.  Does that extend to times when they are not at work?

Reasonable people disagree on this point.  One argument (with which I disagree) is that police are employees like any other person, and they should be able to go home and enjoy being a private citizen.  My argument is that we need to be able to trust that the police have a high level of personal integrity and, therefore, that extends into their private lives if they are behaving in a way that is inconsistent with their role as police officers.  I think this extends to a few different professions, such as military personnel, public servants, barristers, and judges.

It is very difficult to believe that Jack Zane does not hold racist views that are inconsistent with his role as a police officer.  Messages (1) and (2) indicate that very clearly.

But what about people who are not police officers but who act in support capacities?  Do we demand the same standards of behaviour from them as police officers?

I’m not as confident in my answer here.  If the police force employs cleaners, should society be able to demand that they be sacked if they retweet an offensive meme?  I think we should be able to on the basis that they’re all State employees funded by society, but reasonable people disagree with me, thinking my answer is too draconian.

Zane and his acts are the easiest to deal with.  He makes extremely offensive comments directly to Ms Leong.  It’s abuse targeted at an individual on the basis of their race with no rational or reasonable justification for the comments.

The officer who posted the image that ‘one condom could have prevented this’ is a bit harder to deal with.  It wasn’t directed at Ms Leong, so does it still constitute abuse?  Intuitively not.  We tend to think of abuse as directed towards the victim.  But maybe it’s harassment: we do think of harassment as potentially not being directed specifically to the victim.  For example, I might spread a rumour about a colleague that they had ugly knees, knowing that they are very sensitive about their incredibly hideous knees.  Even though I haven’t directed my comments directly to the victim, it seems reasonable to believe that I have harassed them in some secondary way.

But what sort of harassment is ‘one condom could have prevented this’?  It doesn’t appear to be racist or sexist.  It’s sort of pointless, general abuse.  You could replace Ms Leong with anybody and you’d come up with the same pointless, general abuse.

It also doesn’t seem to be too far out of line with contemporary standards of political discourse.  And this is where we get into murky territory.  The motivation for posting the general abuse was about a political policy, so it’s strictly political speech.  The police officers were indicating their disapproval of the Greens’ policy on sniffer dogs by resorting to bland, dishwater abuse.  Do we regulate political discussion by stating that only respectful, insightful, well-reasoned arguments should be expressible on Facebook?

Given my position on censorship, it shouldn’t surprise many people that I lean in that direction.  Yes, if you’re a person who occupies a position of trust and authority, you should be held to higher standards of political discussion.  Your positions should be reasonable and not abusive.  You have to be able to maintain the confidence of society at large that you can continue to undertake your duties despite your reasonably expressed political views.

But there aren’t many people left who can express political opinions in Marktopia.  It’s a threshold that would exclude a lot of people who relied upon the media for their political opinions, for example.  It’s inextricably classist: only people with this many top hats and monocles are able to participate in political debate.  If the ordinary standard of political debate (which is terrible and practically abusive) is too low to meet the threshold, then you’re going to exclude most people.

And then there are those who engage with the material secondarily by ‘liking’ the comments.  I rope them in through participation: you signalled that this kind of rhetoric and political expression is appropriate, therefore you are not fit to hold a position of trust and authority.  But, again, reasonable people might consider this to be draconian.  What about the people who laughed at the memes without hitting the like or subscribe buttons?  Do we start nabbing people for thought crimes?

Yes.

There has been a lot of unhinged nonsense in the wake of this.  Some people have gone so far as to say that the police engaged in treason by undermining elected politicians with their abuse.  I’ve even seen people claim that that the police committed a crime under the Commonwealth Crimes Act.  But even when you exclude the fringe rhetoric, you’re still left with awkward questions about the limits of an employer to regulate staff outside of work hours, and difficult questions about to what standard police officers and support staff should be held when they engage in political speech.

 

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