Flashback: “Law, Citizenship, and the Right to be a Jackass”

Wrong country, same gesture.

[The principal in this tale from a post early in Ethics Alarms’ existence just dicsovered it, and sent some additional detail in a comment.  I am fairly certain that almost nobody read the original post, and I had completely forgotten about it myself. Its central point is still valid, however, and since it involves  an ethics conflict that has frequently re-appeared here—the duty to respect law enforcement officials versus the right not to, and the proper handling of a citizen who is rude, abusive, or worse—I thought I’d revive it.

Much thanks is due to David Hackbart for his considerate comment.]

Three springs ago on the streets of Pittsburgh, David Hackbart was starting to parallel park when a car pulled up behind him. Don’t you hate that? Hackbart did too, and presented his flip-off finger to the anonymous driver in silent protest. “Don’t flip him off!” came a shouted edict from someone outside his car, and Hackbart, not in the mood for officious intermeddling, gave the anonymous civility referee The Finger as well.

This was not just any anonymous referee, however. Hackbart’s second flippee was a police officer, Sgt. Brian Elledge of the Pittsburgh Police Department, who issued a citation to Hackbart for disorderly conduct.  A hearing found Hackbart guilty of the offense, and he was told to pay a fine and court costs totaling $119.75. After he appealed, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office (wisely) dropped the charges. That wasn’t enough for Hackbart, however, who decided to metaphorically flip-off the entire city by persuading the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU to file a civil rights suit against it and Officer Elledge, for violating Hackbart’s rights under the First Amendment “to be free from criminal prosecution or to be retaliated against in any way for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.”

Now, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, Hackbart is $10,000 richer and the ACLU $40,000 so, as Pittsburgh has agreed to settle the lawsuit in the face of solid court precedent backing Hackbart. Insulting a police officer, swearing at him or flipping him off, without more, is not justification for a police officer to arrest you or give you a citation . Thus Hackbart didn’t even have to rely on a “I didn’t know I was flipping-off a police officer” defense. The lesson of the episode appears to be that it’s OK to flip-off a police officer. Heck, it can even be lucrative to flip-off a police officer!

One cannot reasonably dispute the societal wisdom of the decision or the point the ACLU was trying to make, even if the result seems excessive. If we allow those with law enforcement power to punish citizens for mere gestures and insults, they will soon be punishing citizens for not calling them “Officer” and standing at attention. Still, the decision means that while the law will respect and uphold the right of free speech, a citizen’s duty to be respectful and cooperative to law enforcement personnel rests squarely in the realm of ethics. It’s the right thing to do, but like many such things, nobody can make you do it. The same applies to showing strangers your middle finger in traffic and pulling up behind someone trying to parallel park.

Americans have the right to be jackasses. Nevertheless, abusing that right is unethical, and showing disrespect to a police officer is wrong. If David Hackbart wants to do the right thing now, he should apologize to Officer Elledge and use some of that $10,000 windfall to take him to dinner. And he should learn to keep his finger to himself.

[UPDATE: 11/18/2011: David Hackbart added some useful detail to the story , noting: “I am the David Hackbart of which you report. My comments are brief and you are spot on with many of your thoughts. I do want you to know though, I would have apologized on the spot as I was pulled over had Sge. Elledge not been screaming at me so loud and forcefully that it made my passenger cry. When I tried to speak, he overpowered me with lines such as, “Who are you to flip ME off?” and, “You don’t do this in Squirrel Hill.” As if it would somehow be ok to do it an a less affluent section of town? So anyways, I am a reasonable and would have apologized to him if he gave me the chance.”]

It is clear that David is not a jackass, and I should have clarified that the post’s title referred to the principle, and not him specifically.

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