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.