An ugly job, but it’s a living

Freedom of speech and internet publishing for da Poh-leece

Two years ago, when a police officer blogger was told by her employer to kill her blog, I furiously set about learning where my freedom of speech rights were limited by my employer’s rights to maintain discipline and effectiveness. Another blog written by a police officer has bitten the dust within the last week – although I think it was a case of self-censorship / self-preservation. His employer had read his blog, and while having minor problems with one or two posts, the blogger told me he was thinking of making the blog disappear rather than trying to fight the man.

After completing my research a couple of years ago, I published my thoughts as a service to other officers who blog. I sent a copy to the officer who recently yanked his blog in an effort to give him some background information on which to do his own research and reach a decision.

I’m going to republish that old post here:

A cop blogger, whose name and agency I will not mention here, has been forced to yank a blog because of adverse reaction at work. A letter of reprimand was placed in this blogger’s personnel file because combining work issues and personal opinions was perceived as a breach of conduct rules.

I am sure many of you are thinking, “pffft, big deal! Bloggers get dooced all of the time just because they blog.” You would get my agreement on that point because, in general, I think taking action against an employee for writing about their employment and their opinions is wrong. However, as we all know now, most people in this country are in “at will” jobs, which means they can be sacked whenever the employer decides it doesn’t like the cut of their jib.

But, government employees are different.

Not because we are a special class of people deserving of more rights than anyone else. No, it’s because our employers are special creatures. We all work for “The Government”. Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As we all know, although the Amendment’s wording restricts Congress, it applies all the way down to the lowest, least consequential body of government. Congress cannot send a FBI SWAT team to my house to haul me off because they don’t like what I said about Hilary Clinton any more than the City of the ‘Burbs can kick in my door to haul me away because I wrote something derogatory about the Mayor.

“So”, you may ask, “what the hell does that have to do with government employees and Freedom of Speech?”

Damn, you are sharp. I am glad that you asked that question.

The Amendments restrict government from screwing with our rights and freedoms. If I worked at IBM and they wanted to fire me because they don’t like seeing their name mentioned on my blog, that is their privilege. The Amendments aren’t aimed at private businesses interfering with my rights, just the government.

All of this does not mean that I get to say anything I want and stand behind the First Amendment any more than any other citizen can shout “fire!” in the proverbial crowded theater. Government has to be able to protect its interests when they are valid and legitimate things that a government is supposed to concern itself with. Like public safety and national defense. Imagine how ineffectively such functions would be if employees had an unfettered freedom of speech regarding the work place.

The Supremes have been dealing with this particular aspect of Freedom of Speech since the 1960’s, and here is what it looks like today:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees to all citizens, including governmental employees, the right to speak on matters of public interest. This right is, however, not absolute, and analysis of any particular set of facts will involve a balancing of the various issues at stake.

The Court generally upheld the application of First Amendment protections to governmental employees, establishing a balancing standard weighing the employee’s interest in commenting on matters of public concern against the employer’s interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it renders.

In other words, if you are pissed at your supervisor because he is critical of your work, that is a private matter and not of concern to the rest of the public.

If your agency is releasing nuclear waste into the water supply, well that is a major concern to the populace as a whole.

Since the employees all work for the government, and so much of what they do involves public interests, a balancing test was developed to determine whose interests are more important, the employee or the government: How disruptive to operations was the speech, was it public or private speech, and to what degree did the speech touch on matter of public concern?

The final question to be answered is easy, was there a significant harm done to the employee and was it caused as a retribution for the exercise of freedom of speech?

So, here are the Cerberus Rules of Cop Blogging: Please bear in mind that I am completely unqualified to offer such opinions; you should check with your physician before starting this program, actual results may vary, your individual financial situation may be different, and tax, title and license fees are not included. In other words, if you get fired following my advice without doing your own research, you are clearly an idiot and deserve what you got.

1. Don’t do it. Seriously, if you don’t do it you won’t get zapped. But, if you really want to cop blog, I recommend that you,

2. Never specifically identify anything or anyone at your place of work. (See: Cerberus, Some City, and Giant Red State. All figments of my imagination). How can I interfere with or harm the operations of an imaginary agency in a place that never existed?

3. If you are going to break rules # 1 and # 2, then you damn sure better be certain that what you are cop blogging about is a MATTER OF PUBLIC CONCERN.

4. Read and know your agency’s policies on employee freedom of speech, respecting other employees, insubordination, and releasing reports and confidential information. Understand what all the words mean in the context of the policy manual (usually there is a definitions section with all of the legalistic definitions for specific words like “may” and “shall”). Having memorized the policies, carefully blog by not breaking the rules. Imagine your supervisor, commander, some jerkoff in IAD, and the Chief of Police (actually his rat-faced attorney), all carefully reviewing every post you ever wrote. See them with their highlighters, the well-thumbed policy manual open and a stack of blog entries printed out? It’s late at night and cigarette smoke curls in the lamplight as a magnifying glass is used. Now, imagine them jumping up with glee and shouting “Aha! I got you now, you son of a bitch!” Finally, see them running down to HR to start the paperwork on your career change.

5. Consider carefully what you publish to be sure that is does not cause undo interference or disruption of the operations of the police department. What exactly does that mean? (Hell, I don’t know. Ask me something easy, like how many crackheads does it take to clear a city block of all aluminum cans. ) It’s probably a question of proportionality. Does the public interest outweigh whatever harm is done? If you publish pictures of the Chief stealing dope out of the back door of the evidence room, the resulting disruption caused by his firing and indictment is probably acceptable in light of the public need to have a non criminal running the agency. On the other hand, if you have video of the man picking his nose, well the resulting disruption from his public embarrassment is probably not worth whatever mild interest your publication may have found in some dark corner of the world.

6. DO IT ON YOUR OWN TIME, USING YOUR OWN FORUM AND EQUIPMENT. Don’t be a dumbass and blog from work. Don’t even read your blog from work. When IAD tells the computer evidence techs to “take a look at his machine”, your history will be found and I bet your agency has some rules about “conducting personal business while on duty”, “misappropriation of city property”, “being available to superiors, subordinates and citizens”, and “attention to duties”. (We even have one that prohibits reading any non-work related material while on duty. I’m not sure why there are always newspapers laying around in the crapper – perhaps they are for emergency backups when the TP runs out).

7. Don’t gossip or assassinate someone’s character. If you engage in personal attacks (The only reason Bob got the new car and his choice of days off is because he sucks the Sergeant’s….) you make your speech more of a personal thing rather than the protected public interest speech.

8. Decide now what you will do when they call you in. Note, that I didn’t say “if they call you in”, because you need to be prepared now. Are you willing to go to war with the brass over your blog, or do you want to follow one of Cerberus’s Addendum to Murphy’s Laws of Police Work? (Giant Bureaucracies have crappy memories. When you screw up, if you manage to keep your job, just keep your head down and within 2-5 years everyone will have forgotten about it.

9 responses

  1. Glad to see you back, amigo.

    28 December, 2007 at 20:45

  2. Liz

    Wow, even I’d almost forgotten about that. Great advice though, and like Jack said, I’m glad to see you back.

    29 December, 2007 at 0:21

  3. scandal17

    Your rules are so careful I can scarcely see how you preserve an interest in blogging, where the essence of blogging is unwarranted defamation. I guess it’s that public spirited thing. Why you became a cop, etc.

    29 December, 2007 at 10:13

  4. The information is well thought out; but it should also include a warning to PD use of MDT’s to exchange pleasantries. The same group of internal monkeys who look for violations on main frame computers at work have the logs for any and all communications made from the patrol car computers too.

    I once had to write a letter up the chain to explain why I’d sent a “non-police” related “hey how’re you doing” message to a unit on the other side of town.

    Don’t say anything or type anything that you wouldn’t want published in the newspaper, repeated on the evening news or talked about in the rest room after you’ve left that room.

    1 January, 2008 at 14:46

  5. Thanks Jack – I’m going to send you an email and check up on you.

    Hi Liz – Your deployment gave you enough to think about that it put that old matter out of your mind. A good thing I think. Congratulations on the new job and welcome home.

    Scandal – I can get away with it easily now because I’m retired. But even when I was working and had the old blog I had the presence of mind to decide to try for anonymity. That does not work very well, as other commentors here can attest to. I lucked out – but if I ever thought someone was getting too close I would have shut up shop and tried to stay under the radar as much as possible.

    TF – One of my recent projects was digitizing all my old photos and slides. About 10,000 of them, mostly photos, and I did them by hand. One of my next projects is to go in and use PhotoShop to clean them all up and make them look better. Your photos look very clean by the way.

    Your advice regarding the newspaper is good. I have to say that I have a tendency to be outspoken, and sometimes brash, and all too often I speak my mind without considering all the ways someone might take what I say. A few times something I have said was cherry picked by a reporter or observer and it caused others some discomfort. Nothing untrue or unnecessarily harsh (in my view), just the truth, but I wish I could take some of those things back. Some things I could have said in a more politically correct manner. Not all of them though, some people needed to hear the unvarnished truth to get them to do the right thing at the right time. Unfortunately, they can’t be counted on during membership drives for my fan club.

    Ultimately, I guess if I got to be a outspoken sumbitch, I would choose to be a truthful sumbitch, beholden to nobody, than a less than honest sumbitch with a lot of friends of dubious natures.

    Still, your advice is dead on. I always tell my kids to try to learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. And one thing I wish I had learned a lot earlier was that one should never make an enemy by being careless with deed or words.

    2 January, 2008 at 20:19

  6. Great post.

    6 January, 2008 at 5:57

  7. Anonymous

    I am currently under investigation at work for a blog and don’t have high hopes for keeping my job. Here’s a question, after the arbitration to decide if I keep the job, if I lose, what would be wrong with then spilling all the dirty little secrets that I never dared blog about? Sure no names, but I’ve got stuff the media would love. Let them find the names. Am I in any danger civil or criminal for contacting the press and letting them start a feeding frenzy?

    7 January, 2008 at 20:20

  8. Mr. Anonymous – May I offer my sincere sympathies for the situation in which you now find yourself. Even if you did violate a policy for which they ultimately decide to fire you, it is important to keep things in perspective. Getting fired sucks and causes a lot of turmoil and heartache, but you have to remember the job does not love you. I’ve seen plenty of people get fired, some deserved it and others were unfortunate victims of workplace bullshit, and they all got on with their lives and did just fine. In other words, you will survive this and go on to bigger and better things.

    My first bit of advice is to go seek out an attorney. I’m assuming that you’re in law enforcement, in which case I would recommend your first stop be your bargaining unit/union/FOP/officer’s association, whatever they call it. Most have labor relation attorneys on staff who should be familiar with how things work there. They might not be the bestest attorneys available, and they may be in over their heads when you ask questions about blogging, but they should be up to date on the ins and outs of what it will take to save your job, or perhaps make the whole situation a little more tolerable. Or, if you choose to go to the media, what your legal liabilities might be.

    I’m not an attorney, nor do I play one on the internet. My legal advice is worth every penny that you are paying me.

    All of that said, the best I can offer are my opinions, which if you throw in $6 will get you a nice triple venti latte at Starbucks.

    First, one of Cerberus’ Rules of Huge Police Bureaucracies is that organizations have terrible memories. If you keep your job, there will be a period following the incident in which everybody will know all about what happened. But, as time goes on and people promote, transfer, retire or get fired, the brass gets scrambled around and the hard feelings about your offenses start to get hazy. As the faces in your chain of command change, so too does the strength of any lingering institutional black mark on your name.

    I’ve seen people get the crap kicked out of them administratively, nearly lose their job, get transferred to some dank shit hole of an assignment and then come out of it a few years later as if nothing happened. The key to making such a recovery is to lay low, keep your act straight, your mouth shut, and try to stay under everyone’s radar for a while. It is possible, usually after a couple of years of purgatory, to come back and be washed clean. There will always be someone who remembers, but most of the bosses will have forgotten as new things occupy their minds. I’ve seen it happen many times in large state, local and federal agencies, but I’m not sure how well it works in smaller workplaces.

    Flinging shit bombs all over the place is not even close to the definition of laying low. Of course you wrote that you don’t think you will come out of arbitration as the victor, so it may be a moot point. Just something to consider.

    Second, whistle blowing is a tough row to hoe. There is not a lot of love to be had on that route, and it can be a very lonely road. The people who you’re exposing are going to hate you with a passion, and depending on the situation, might try to go after you. Look up Serpico’s story and see how bad it can get. The people you’re going to take your story to are almost guaranteed to see you as something to be used to achieve their goals. If you need protection you are going to want to be working with someone who will make a good effort to protect you. The first, and easiest, attack against you will be to label you a disgruntled former employee who was fired. That’s a tough hit on your credibility, and interested onlookers could be easily swayed to disbelieving you under those circumstances.

    The exact nature of the bad stuff you want to expose is going to be very important. If you’re speaking about some criminal activity or blatant errors in judgment that have harmed the lives, liberty or property rights of innocent citizens, then that is some serious bad shit and a lot of mileage will be gained if the right person/group picks up the ball and runs with it. However, if it’s that kind of stuff, the first question I would ask (as would others) would be “why are you just now bringing this forward after you lost your job?” Most people would believe a legit guy would have come forward sooner, unless he was somehow involved, or if he was otherwise turning a blind eye to it until his job was on the line. Again, your credibility takes a hit.

    And if it’s something less serious – then the mileage anyone could get out of it is in doubt.

    Third, what is the degree of public interest in what you want to bring forward? As I said in the original post, the degree of public interest has to outweigh the degree of harm done to the agency’s operations. And if you are way out there on the other side, and there is some harm done to the professional reputations of former coworkers, you could be exposing yourself to some civil liability.

    Fourth, what are your motivations and expectations? I can sympathize with you about being pissed off if you are getting unjustly screwed over. I’ve been there and have a closet full of “I got fucked” t-shirts. There were some good lessons learned on the way to collecting all of those shirts. One lesson I learned is that you can’t undo something bad that has already happened to you. You can fight to protect yourself and keep some more bad shit coming your way, but you can’t undo a fucking that’s already happened. From what you wrote in your comment, it seems like your fucking is pretty much a done deal. Which makes it sound like you are looking for some payback. Exacting revenge is a dark alley to go down. I’m no angel, and I have strolled down that alley holding a brick behind my back more than once. But I have always believed that doing bad brings bad right back at you, and so I stopped going down that alley.

    The most interesting lesson I learned is that bad folks come to bad ends all by themselves. A few years ago a racist, who was a high ranking official in another agency, came after me because my skin tone wasn’t one he preferred. He tried to trash my reputation and was successful in getting me reassigned. It was a pretty good little fucking, but done clumsily. A lot of people came to me and tried to get me to sue him, and it was something I probably could have won, but I knew it would cost me money, heartache and a lot of time. Too many people knew the guy was full of shit and my reputation actually increased over the deal. But the other guy had made too many enemies and within a few months he stepped over the line. He found himself under investigation, accused of some serious malfeasance in a multi-part newspaper article, called before Congress and threatened with a referral to DOJ for perjury before Congress, was ultimately demoted and wound up retiring in shame. It wasn’t me doing it to him, and it didn’t directly relate to what he had tried to do to me, but it was very sweet watching karma shit all over the man in such a publicly humiliating manner. And I didn’t have to do a thing, because the son of a bitch did it all to himself.

    Good luck to you anonymous, I hope it works out for you.

    8 January, 2008 at 0:05

  9. Pingback: Exposing yourself « Cerberus at the gate

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