For police officers, an internet rant could cost three days’ pay. Forwarding a music video critical of the department to a television station could cost 10, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Law enforcement workers do not enjoy the same level of free speech protection civilians have on social media and can be punished for expressing themselves on politically charged topics such as racism and immigration. With racial tensions high amid a contentious and polarizing presidential campaign, where videos of fatal officer-involved shootings of unarmed black people appear in news feeds, officers are under more public scrutiny than ever. “The public is watching the police, and they can’t be perceived as coddling or excusing hate speech by their employees,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor and now on the John Jay College of Criminal Justice faculty. “The landscape is littered with people who’ve lost their job over social media.”
Last month, a Nashville police officer was suspended after posting a comment on Facebook referencing a fatal police-involved shooting in Minnesota. Another was decommissioned for changing his profile photo to an iconic 1960s Black Panthers image. In Memphis, two officers were suspended and remain under investigation over posts on Snapchat of what appeared to be a white person pointing a gun at a cartoon image of a black child running through a home. Speech about racism may interfere with a law enforcement organization’s ability to operate, said David Hudson, a First Amendment Center researcher at Vanderbilt University’s John Seigenthaler Center. “When your job is to handle people of various races, that’s a problem,” he said.