A few months ago I posted a comment on reports that the City of Philadelphia was disciplining several police officers who had allegedly made racially derogatory comments while driving around town in their squad car (accompanied by a journalism student from Temple, who made the comments public). It struck me then (and strikes me now) as very troubling as a matter of First Amendment law — though I was very surprised to find that most of the VC commenters didn’t agree with me on that.
Now comes a related story involving the Domelights.com website, a popular Philly-based discussion website frequented by lots of Philly cops. [Additional commentary can be found here and here] The website operators (and the City of Philadelphia) have been sued by a group of African-American police officers (joined by the NAACP) on the grounds that the website is “infested with racist, white supremacist and anti-African-American content” and creates a “hostile work environment” in violation of federal civil rights laws. [The hostile work environment arises because, according to the suit, “white officers post on and moderate the privately operated site, Domelights.com, both on and off the job [and Domelights' users] often joke about the racially offensive commentary on the site … or will mention them in front of black police officers,” thus creating “a racially hostile work environment.”]
Domelights.com has – perhaps only temporarily — shut down as a result of the suit (which is seeking a permanent injunction against operation of the site, and/or against any police officers posting to the site).
There are so many outrageous things about this suit I hardly know where to begin. Put aside the fact that the website is entirely privately operated, without any support or sanction from the City (which should allow the City to obtain dismissal of the claims against it). Put aside the fact that federal law (section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996) provides that “no provider . . . of an interactive computer service [like Domelights.com] shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider [the site's users].” The notion that a federal court could enjoin the operation of this site because police officers make racially insensitve/offensive comments there (and then other officers joke about those comments on-the-job) is Orwellian — surely this gets our collective First Amendment antennae vibrating, no? I’m no expert on federal civil rights law, but if it permits this suit to go forward it represents another very unfortunate nail in what is becoming a pretty tight coffin for First Amendment values in this country, and I genuinely despair of that.
[Full disclosure: I've been approached by the defendant Domelights.com in regard to this suit, and I am likely to be assisting in the defense, so I won't pretend to objectivity on this score]
Update: Thanks to Eugene V., here’s a copy of the Complaint filed in this case