The 1st Amendment rights of a Baltimore cop are undervalued

There’s been so much police related news coming out of Baltimore for the past few years that a few of the stories are bound to slip through the cracks, but one of the less noticed ones from this week deserves a look. There’s been another member of Charm City’s boys in blue put on suspension, this time not for shooting a suspect or roughing up a prisoner, but for sending an email. Lt. Victor Gearhart is not just a cop, but also an official in the local Fraternal Order of Police. While the FOP was holding a convention in the city there was a protest held by Black Lives Matter and Gearhart took to his official police email account to fire off a memo. (Baltimore Sun)

“By now you have seen that the THUGS from BLM and other similar groups have attempted to disrupt the state FOP Convention being held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel,” the email read. “Well today was check-in day with activities spread over the next 3 days so expect more bad behavior from the THUGS OF BALTIMORE.”

However on “the bright side maybe they will stop killing each other while they are protesting us.”

This, of course, landed Gearhart in hot water and he’s now been suspended pending an investigation. Local editorial writers are calling for his dismissal and the civil liberties groups who normally rush to the defense of free speech are strangely silent on the subject. As the Daily Caller reports, there seems to be a popular consensus that the officer needs to be removed for the sake of appearances, but that could be tricky to pull off because speech isn’t action.

“I haven’t thought about it,” said Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, an obscure affirmative action hire until he rocketed to fame by claiming St. Louis cops violated his rights for arresting him while covering the Ferguson riots.

Of course, whether public employees are entitled to legal protection for offensive speech is very complex and depends on a multitude of particular factors. But the city could face an uphill battle if they try to fire Lt. Victor Gearhart, a veteran civil rights lawyer tells the Washington Gadfly.

“Yes, it’s complicated,” the source explained, “I suppose that’s why there’s now an internal investigation rather than a summary discharge. Stay tuned.”

The source, let’s call him Serpico, has sued cops may times. Serpico is averse to speaking on the record about cases he does not personally handle. Still, he is one of the few liberals even willing to express concerns about a possible First Amendment violation.

It is indeed complicated. Gearhart has gotten himself in “trouble” before, once for saying that BLM protesters dressed “like ISIS.” He was removed from patrol duties at that point and placed in an office job. But can you simply dismiss a cop for expressing his opinions, particularly in the context of his role in the FOP? That’s a sticky question.

Nobody has a guaranteed job and the cops clearly have a need to look out for their reputation and prevent more unrest in the community. But Gearhart has the union to (perhaps) back him up on appeal if he’s fired on dubious charges. Obviously he can be removed if he’s found to be behaving in a manner which is in violation of the Civil Rights Act, but was the memo really “racist” in this case? He was talking about a high profile group which was protesting his union. And you’ll recall that many BLM marches are made up of people of all races (including whites) when they take to the streets. As for the idea that “thug” has racial connotations against blacks, it was not only used to describe the mafia for decades in the United States, but it actually dates back to 14th century India.

If he’s unhappy with their tactics, can the officer not express that opinion without fear of losing his job? Given the mood on the streets in Baltimore these days and the history of City Hall’s handling of such matters, I wouldn’t bet on it. But if he does wind up being fired and taking the matter to court I’ll be fascinated to see how that plays out.