Free Speech Vs. Responsible Speech: Was The Omaha Police Union Wrong?

Taking it Too Far?

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By Attorney Melba Pearson
Special to THELAW.TV

The Omaha, Nebraska police union came under fire this week for posting a video on its website. The video, which is highly disturbing, shows a young toddler in pampers being egged on by the people off screen (purportedly the parents) to curse and make obscene statements. In the background, the adults are heard to be laughing and making jokes. The toddler, along with three other children in the home, has been taken into protective custody as a result of issues child investigators found after the release of this video.

The video is sickening, because it is clear that whoever is around this child is a horrible influence. However, what the Omaha Police Officers Association did next was dead wrong. They posted this video, with a statement that read in part "…we knew that despite the fact that it is sickening, heartbreaking footage, we have an obligation to share it to continue to educate the law abiding public about the terrible cycle of violence and thuggery that some young innocent children find themselves helplessly trapped in."

There are several things wrong with this scenario. First, there was a serious lack of sensitivity here. Yes, it is clear this is a case of terrible parenting. Yes, that child has a questionable future if he remains in that environment. But, if law enforcement is presented with such evidence, they should simply send the video to child protective services. Don't humiliate the child. Don't use it as a "see what we deal with moment." Some human compassion for the child would have been appropriate.

Second, why use a child of color? Apparently the video was retrieved from a known gang member's Facebook account. But, in world where just about every cell phone has video capabilities, is this to say that in Omaha there are NO other examples of bad parenting from any other race that is on video? If it was about bad parenting, then show a variety of bad parent videos. There is no shortage. Reality TV has plenty. Additionally, "thugs" come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. What's left is the distinct feeling that this is an attempt at some sort of justification of police policy; the unspoken sentence was "so if we stop people of color that look like thugs, this video is why."

And, of course, we have the inevitable argument about free speech. Everyone always points to "the Constitution gives us free speech, so they can post what they want."  Let's look at free speech. Sure you can say what you want, but there are consequences.

You can't curse out your boss and expect to have a job the next day.

Were you exercising free speech? Yes.

Was it responsible? No.

The police and police union have a responsibility to their communities. The Omaha Police Department made it very clear they had no part in posting the video, and this is strictly the actions of the union. The video was reviewed with prosecutors and the determination was made that no crimes were committed.

What's important is that the police union should be using their website to advance the cause of criminal justice. Showing that video did nothing to advance the cause of criminal justice.

We all see examples of bad parenting everywhere. We see the criminal element that police have to deal with on the evening news. Some of us see it even closer than that. A police officer's job is scary, hard, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Posting this video was insensitive and irresponsible. There are other ways to provoke a dialogue about crime other than using public humiliation of a child.

With power comes responsibility. Use it wisely.

The author Melba Pearson is an attorney in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.