Debate Forum 2/23/16

Should cops have free speech on social media?

By Sarah Sidlow

Fairborn police officer Lee Cyr apparently loves a happy ending.

At the moment, he’s also enjoying a bit of paid administrative leave for something he said on the Internet.

After Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn McCarrel killed himself on the front steps of the Ohio Statehouse, Cyr commented, “Love a happy ending” on the Ohio Politics Facebook page. This, of course, did not go over well.

After sharing his comment, Cyr was placed on administrative leave while internal affairs investigators work to determine whether he violated the police department’s social media policy.

Fairborn officers are not allowed to post to social media while on duty, but the internal affairs investigators have determined Cyr was off-duty when he hit submit. However, Cyr may still be in violation of department policy due to the nature of his comment.

This isn’t Cyr’s first Facebook offense. It seems the officer was also warned about “social media behavior” last May, after he posted a response on the Giovanni’s Facebook page. The local pizzeria asked, “What are your favorite things do to or places in Fairborn?”

Cyr responded, “Leave.”

How’s that for a slice?

While no one is claiming Cyr to be a great community ambassador, his most recent headline is leading some to ask what the limitations of free speech may be for public sector employees.

After all, Cyr’s wasn’t the only negative comment to be found in response to the Black Lives Matter post. His comment, which was removed from the Facebook page, was just one of several that applauded McCarrel’s suicide. Others allegedly included comments in the same vein.

Yet Cyr, a police officer and thus a public sector employee, may have different expectations of free speech than others who may have commented on the site. Should that be the case?

Many say, absolutely.

As a public employee, some argue, his speech should be limited and treated with caution. A bone-headed comment like this one may come back to bite him, for example, in an unrelated court hearing down the road in which he is asked to testify. Moreover, they continue, as a public figure in the community, one assumes a certain level of responsibility and an expectation of appropriateness in all aspects of public life. This includes the Facebook.

Yet opponents of this school of thought claim that just because Cyr is a police officer doesn’t mean he isn’t an American citizen with a right to free speech. They point to the nasty things that have been said about police officers by groups like Black Lives Matter, and ask, if McCarrel and his peers were protected to speak their feelings about law enforcement without consequence, isn’t Cyr allowed to do the same?

Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at

Love an awkward beginning …

By Ben Tomkins

The name “Facebook” ought to give people pause about posting racist comments on the internet. It’s got the word “face,” which is the last thing of yours you want associated racism, and “book,” implying that it’s going to be published somewhere. Like on Facebook. For the entire world to see.

I don’t know of many people on the planet who would say that Officer Cyr, or should I say, “very-likely-to-be-former-Officer Cyr”, made a good business decision by posting a comment expressing pleasure that a leader of Black Lives Matter shot himself. As a matter of fact, I doubt anyone would. I can certainly hear the words “reverse racism” echoing through the air, and there is a delicious irony that the minds small enough to spout racist screed are the ones that came up with the term. Reverse racism doesn’t exist. If someone’s racist against any race then they’re a racist. Reverse racism implies, at the very least, that you know you lobbed a racist tennis ball over the net and you’re annoyed that the victim’s return caught the line as it went whizzing past you.

Unfortunately, as much as I think a civil servant entrusted with a gun should be losing their job over that post, I’m not sure internal affairs will be able to make it stick. It seems to me that the comment was either very carefully worded or very carelessly lucky, because there is just enough leeway for the argument to be made that he didn’t mean it the way it’s being read. The flat fact of the matter is that “Love a happy ending” could be interpreted differently depending on what kind of emoji goes after it.

Facebook, texting and sometimes even lengthy emails suffer from the disease of misinterpretation. Because it’s a written word and not inflected or accompanied by a facial expression, benign statements have ended relationships and horrible truths have been dismissed as sarcasm or a sick sense of humor. In fact, other than the chuckle of making someone look at a pile of poo against their will, that is exactly why emojis exist. A smiley face when you call your friend a whore is funny. An angry devil face when you call them a whore means you either know them very, very well or you want your tires slashed.

The lack of an emoji after Cyr’s “Love a happy ending” comment may sell his case that he exercised bad judgement when his intention to post:

“Love a happy ending 🙁 ”

came off as:

“Love a happy ending :p”

In this particular case there was no emoji at all, which would probably give a very good lawyer a chance to get him a short suspension instead of a career change. An excellent lawyer might even be able to make the case that he should be entitled to his opinion because sarcasm and satire are two of the most important forms of protected speech. It was off the clock, and the current social climate makes this a very politicized issue. For instance, what are we to make of an immigration officer who says, “Trump is right about Muslims”? Of all the things you can fire someone for, endorsing a political candidate is just about the last. If Hustler can be interpreted as protected speech, I think this might have to be too.

There appears to be very little else written by Officer Cyr to shed some light either way on the comment. A famously devastating wit like Churchill was usually transparent when he was quipping or whipping because he was basically a walking emoji. When he told an editor who criticized him for ending a sentence with a preposition, “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put,” we can be fairly certain this man was not a friend he was having an inside joke with.

Sorry mom, you taught me better grammar than that.

“A friend with whom he was having an inside joke :)”

But thanks all the same for constantly correcting me in front of my friends. 🙁

The opposite problem exists for Officer Cyr. The only other bit of information we know about him is the comment that his favorite thing to do in Fairborn is “leave.” Smiley face? Only those who know his personality and his sense of humor could make a distinction. I don’t like it, but if he’s off the clock it seems he should have the ability to weigh in on political issues in the name of free speech. Particularly because it’s ambiguous I think we must extend him the benefit of the doubt.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

The duty to remain silent

By Don Hurst

It did not take long in the hiring process for me to realize that becoming a police officer meant forfeiting some of my rights. The background investigator strapped me to a lie detector and explored all areas of my life; areas that civilian employers would not touch. Describe your pornography habits. Have you ever solicited a prostitute? Have you ever lied? Have you ever used racial slurs? Have you ever treated anyone differently because of his or her race, gender or sexual orientation?

Police departments are very clear from the beginning that there is no punching in and out as a cop. A distinction between work time you and free time you does not exist. Off-duty behavior not only determines suitability during the hiring process but also suitability during employment.

Departments cannot allow behavior that undermines the credibility of either the officer or the organization. The rules have to be stricter for police officers than for normal civilian occupations because the stakes are higher. Officers make life or death decisions. They testify in court where sometimes the only evidence is their under-oath statements. The badge, the gun, the authority don’t matter unless the police officer has credibility.

Irresponsible social media use detracts from a police department’s credibility. If John Smith applauds the suicide of a Black Lives Matter protestor, then it is just John Smith’s opinion. Once John Smith updates his profile pic to himself in uniform and lists his occupation as a police officer for the Fairborn Police Department then it is the Fairborn Police Department that applauds the suicides of protestors.

That might not be fair, but that’s how the public thinks. Departments cannot allow their officers to make it any easier for detractors to run law enforcement’s reputation through the mud.

In this police departments are much like civilian employers. Most companies impose limits on employees’ social media activity. Even the teenager flipping burgers for minimum wage has to tweet with caution. Google “employees fired social media” and wade through the thousands of cases where employees punish workers for indirectly connecting their companies to offensive posts. If it is appropriate for fast food restaurants to protect their credibility then it is even more important for police departments where the consequences are more severe.

Poor social media behavior affects a police officer’s ability to fulfill their duties—especially as they relate to wining convictions in court. One of the first things a decent defense attorney does is investigate any police officer connected to their case. They subpoena internal affairs files for citizen complaints that speak to bias, prejudice or poor judgment. Then they search social media for derogatory information to shred the officer’s credibility on the stand.

We are in a period of extreme distrust of law enforcement. Bashing police officers has become popular sport in the media. Jurors view their testimony through lenses of skepticism and suspicion. Even when there is absolutely no evidence of racism it is difficult to convince a jury that officers act impartially.

I once had a defense attorney ask me how many black people I had arrested in my career. I didn’t know. But she did. When she answered for me, a couple of jurors shook their heads in disgust. Even though I had never been guilty of biased policing the prosecutor was on the defensive. He had to switch from proving the defendant was guilty of a violent felony to proving that I wasn’t an out of control racist cop.

How much harder would his job have been if that defense attorney had slapped some rouge Facebook comments down in front of the jury? I can just imagine the questions. “Officer, do you hate activists fighting for the civil rights of black people? Do you think that black lives don’t matter? Do you think the deaths of civil rights leaders are a happy ending?” There is no way to dig out of that. That is exactly what any decent attorney would do.

A judge might allow the questioning if the defense can argue that their client fell prey to racial profiling. Even if the judge forbids that track and orders the questions to be removed from the record it’s too late. The damage is already done. The jurors can’t unhear the questions. The defense doesn’t have to convince the entire jury that the officer is a racist. Just one or two would be enough to derail a conviction.

If the evidence against the defendant is strong enough then one officer’s potential bias doesn’t matter, right? Remember the OJ Simpson trial? The defense expertly shifted the case from OJ’s alleged double homicide to Detective Fuhrman’s racism by playing audio of the detective using the “n-word” for the jury. Since he was the officer who located key forensic evidence on OJ’s property, the entire case began to crumble. Detective Fuhrman’s comments diminished his credibility and introduced enough reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds to acquit OJ.

A police officer who endangers any case he touches is no good to anyone. An officer’s job doesn’t end at arrest. They must have enough credibility in court to successfully convict guilty parties. If they can’t do that there is no reason for them to be a police officer. Abiding by social media policies that are common in the private sector is a small price to pay to maintaining credibility.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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