It's been pretty obvious that law enforcement in the St. Louis area has a rather tenuous grasp on the concept of the First Amendment. Obviously, they've done a fairly terrible job recognizing the right to "peaceably assemble" for quite some time, even having a court declare its "5 second rule" approach unconstitutional
. They've also ignored the freedom of the press by repeatedly arresting journalists
. And, remember, the local prosecutor has claimed that it was really all those people speaking out on social media who were to blame
But it appears that the misunderstanding of the First Amendment has been taken to new, and even more ridiculous levels, following a brief show of support for the protestors by some players for the St. Louis Rams (the local NFL football franchise for you non-sportsball people). The Rams' wide receivers decided to all put their hands up -- the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture -- in support of Michael Brown and the protestors. It's a small, but meaningful gesture, showing they supported the protestors. And it shouldn't have been taken as anything more than that.
Instead, the St. Louis County police decided to respond... by suggesting that, because of this, the police would no longer protect the Rams
. Here's the statement from the St. Louis Police Officers Association, quoting Jeff Roorda, the group's spokesperson, and a local politician (and ex-cop):
Roorda was incensed that the Rams and the NFL would tolerate such behavior and called it remarkably hypocritical. "All week long, the Rams and the NFL were on the phone with the St. Louis Police Department asking for assurances that the players and the fans would be kept safe from the violent protesters who had rioted, looted, and burned buildings in Ferguson. Our officers have been working 12 hour shifts for over a week, they had days off including Thanksgiving cancelled so that they could defend this community from those on the streets that perpetuate this myth that Michael Brown was executed by a brother police officer and then, as the players and their fans sit safely in their dome under the watchful protection of hundreds of St. Louis's finest, they take to the turf to call a now-exonerated officer a murderer, that is way out-of-bounds, to put it in football parlance," Roorda said.
"The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology. Roorda said he planned to speak to the NFL and the Rams to voice his organization's displeasure tomorrow. He also plans to reach out to other police organizations in St. Louis and around the country to enlist their input on what the appropriate response from law enforcement should be. Roorda warned, "I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters."
As many have noted, this certainly sounds like Roorda saying that it's the police's "First Amendment" rights to look the other way should any threats come to the team or the stadium. Update: In the comments, many are arguing that this comment does not reflect the intent not to protect the Rams any more, but rather just to boycott the merchandise offered by advertisers. That's a reasonable interpretation of the comments, though it still seems like he's implying something deeper -- actually involving police response. Note the claim that Roorda is going to speak to other police forces on an "appropriate response.." Separately, Roorda specifically calls out the fact that the Rams had asked police for extra protection, which certainly implies that police would not be as interested in doing so if players keep supporting protestors. It seems clear to me -- though, clearly not to others -- that Roorda is suggesting that if you state a position that the police disagree with, the police will look for ways to punish you. That's troubling.
Of course, that's not how the First Amendment actually works. It's quite the opposite. As Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post points out, the reality is exactly the opposite
. The First Amendment protects
the public from government officials
(including the police) from taking actions based on expression of members of the public. If anything, Roorda's implied threat violates the First Amendment, suggesting that the government will punish people for their expression.
To begin with, the First Amendment only protects free speech against government action. That’s all it does. It doesn’t protect the St. Louis players from NFL owners, or league commissioners, or talk radio hosts who disagree with them. But it does protect them from the government. So the person in danger of abusing the First Amendment here is not the football player with the edgy gesture in a public stadium. Or the NFL owner who might want to tell them to shut up to protect advertising. It’s the governmental agent — like, say, a cop — who seeks to punish someone for expressing certain views.
Of course, the First Amendment now also
protects the press
digging into Jeff Roorda's own background and reporting what they find
. Like the time he was reprimanded
for trying "to 'cover' for another police officer filing a report that contained false statements." Or how he's against body cameras
because they "sometimes don't reflect exactly what happened" and saying that "cameras have been bad for law enforcement" because "it causes second guessing by the courts and the media." Roorda has also defended an officer
who a surveillance video showed was assaulting a handcuffed suspect, claiming the officer was "only defending himself" and saying he was doing "as he's trained to do."
In fact, we actually wrote about
that last story and posted the video. You can see it here:
As we noted at the time, Roorda then lied about what's in the video. Roorda claimed that the officer was crouched down and the suspect started moving forward at him. But the video shows no such thing. Roorda further claimed that such videos should only be used when it helps the police view of things.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Police still seem to think that their First Amendment rights include pretending that the Rams apologized to them when they did not. The official Twitter feed and Facebook feed have both tried to argue that the Rams' COO, Kevin Demoff apologized to the police for the players' actions. On Facebook, they admit that Demoff didn't really apologize
, but they still took it as an apology -- and then on Twitter tried to suggest
that regretting "any offense that... officers may have taken" was actually an apology, based on their tortured reading of the dictionary:
Except, of course, most people recognize that a "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" is not really an apology, and here it appears that Demoff didn't even go that far. But, still, the St. Louis police want to claim it was an apology. And, I guess, they believe that's their First Amendment right to misrepresent what was actually said to them...