The latest major example of the police or government “expressing their opinion” in a way that stifles dissent happened after Sunday’s St. Louis Rams/Oakland Raiders football game. Five Rams players (Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt) entered the stadium in the now classic “hands up/don’t shoot” position, as many protestors are doing. Following this, the St. Louis police association strongly expressed their disapproval and “… called for the Rams and the NFL to apologize and discipline the players involved.”
This is certainly not the first time government officials tried to use the power of their office or position to stifle the free speech of NFL players. In 2012, when Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo expressed support for marriage equality, Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett C. Burns Jr called on the team owner to discipline Ayanbadejo and tell him to not talk about the issue.
In my home state of New Jersey, a similar incident happened in Trenton, also about the killing of Michael Brown. In this case, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) authorized a mural, and the artist painted a picture of Michael Brown with the words “Sagging pants is not probable cause.” However, after the Trenton Police and the TDA had “discussions” the city painted over the mural. Fortunately, the ACLU of New Jersey and the Trenton NAACP have voiced their disapproval and made OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests to understand how this happened.
Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Do the police and government officials really think they’re just using their first amendment rights to express their opinions? I don’t think so. In most cases, they’re surely fully aware that people do what they say because of the power they have. Their thoughts aren’t merely contributing to the marketplace of ideas, but they are using their power to accomplish what they want.
But it really doesn’t matter if government officials and the police think they are merely expressing their opinions. We need to ensure that they don’t succeed in stifling free speech.