Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

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6 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

  1. As you can hear, the 911 caller did not give out false information. The caller explained she was not sure whether they were simply stuck outside of their house or not but saw that they were trying to force their way in. That’s not false information.

    As for the arrest, I think it’s pretty clear the cops are in the wrong. The arresting officer told Dr. Gates to step outside of his home because that’s the only place where he could be arrested. The officer could not have arrested Dr. Gates in his home without probable cause of violence, a warrant, etc. I think it’s quite clear Dr. Gate’s rights were being violated.

    1. Benjamin, good point. I posted the article before I had a chance to listen to the tape. I’ll correct it.

      1. Here’s the transcript:

        911 OPERATOR: 9-1-1, what is the exact location of your emergency?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Hi, I’m actually at (inaudible) street in Cambridge, the house number is 7 Ware Street.

        911 OPERATOR: OK ma’am, your cell phone cut out, what’s the address again?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Sorry, it’s 7 Ware Street. That’s W-A-R-E Street.

        911 OPERATOR: The emergency is at 7 Ware Street, right?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Well no, I’m sorry. 17. Some other woman is talking next to me but it’s 17, 1-7 Ware Street.

        911 OPERATOR: What’s the phone number you’re calling me from?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: I’m calling you from my cell phone number.

        911 OPERATOR: All right, tell me exactly what happened?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Um, I don’t know what’s happening. I just had an older woman standing here and she had noticed two gentlemen trying to get in a house at that number, 17 Ware Street. And they kind of had to barge in and they broke the screen door and they finally got in. When I had looked, I went further, closer to the house a little bit after the gentlemen were already in the house. I noticed two suitcases. So, I’m not sure if this is two individuals who actually work there, I mean, who live there.

        911 OPERATOR: You think they might have been breaking in?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: I don’t know ’cause I have no idea. I just noticed.

        911 OPERATOR: So you’re saying you think the possibility might have been there? What do you mean by barged in? You mean they kicked the door in?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: No, they were pushing the door in. Like, umm, the screen part of the front door was kind of like cut.

        911 OPERATOR: How did they open the door itself with the lock?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: They, I didn’t see a key or anything ’cause I was a little bit away from the door. But I did notice that they pushed their (interrupted).

        911 OPERATOR: And what do the suitcases have to do with anything?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: I don’t know, I’m just saying that’s what I saw.

        911 OPERATOR: Do you know what apartment they broke into?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: No, they’re just they first floor. I don’t even think that it’s an apartment. It’s 17 Ware Street. It’s a house, it’s a yellow house. Number 17. I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key but I did notice that they kind of used their shoulder to kind of barge in and they got in. I don’t know if they had a key or not because I couldn’t see from my angle. But, you know, when I looked a little closely that’s what I saw.

        911 OPERATOR: (inaudible) guy or Hispanic?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Umm.

        911 OPERATOR: Are they still in the house?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: They’re still in the house, I believe, yeah.

        911 OPERATOR: Were they white, black or Hispanic?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Umm, well there were two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn’t see what he looked like at all. I just saw it from a distance and this older woman was worried thinking someone’s breaking in someone’s house, they’ve been barging in. And she interrupted me and that’s when I had noticed otherwise I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all, to be honest with you. So, I was just calling ’cause she was a concerned neighbor, I guess.

        911 OPERATOR: OK, are you standing outside?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: I’m standing outside, yes.

        911 OPERATOR: All right, the police are on the way, you can meet them then they get there. What’s your name?

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Yeah, my name is (deleted).

        911 OPERATOR: All right, we’re on the way.

        FEMALE WITNESS CALLER: Ok. All right, I guess I’ll wait. Thanks.

  2. Just wanted to add this quote from Christopher Hitchens:

    It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right.

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