The Ethics Score on
the Maryland Police Message Board Controversy
Technology met ethics once again in Montgomery
County, Maryland, where the revelation of offensive comments on a police
union on-line message board caused heated debates and stinging accusations.
The controversy has calmed substantially, but the ethical issues remain
muddled…a perfect time for the Ethics Scoreboard to weigh in.
A summary of the flap:
A Washington Post reporter, encouraged and assisted by some annoyed police
union members, gained access to the password-protected private message
board and revealed some of the inflammatory anonymous messages on the
site. A sample exchange on the topic of Hispanics in the County:
"Half of the district NO HABLA!!!! COMPRENDE??" said a post by an officer
identified as "4D."
"HALF, TRY 90 PERCENT . . . BEANERS GO HOME," responded another poster
using the screen name "SE HABLA AWE SCREW IT, HANDS UP PACO."
Other posts disparaged blacks, women and County management, some in extremely
Immediately, community leaders and County officials condemned the board,
with much of the criticism centering on Police Chief Tom Manger, who everyone
agreed had no control over the content on the website. The president of
the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, for example, said he nonetheless
held Manger primarily responsible.
"He is the leader," Hailstock said. "There are some things management
can do to let officers responsible for this know that it is not going
to be tolerated and that if they're found doing this, they are going to
be disciplined." Meanwhile, the union that was in fact responsible for
the message board announced that it was, in effect, nobody's business
what its members posted on its site. "We don't censor it, we don't actively
monitor it," said Walter Bader, president of Montgomery County's Fraternal
Order of Police "It's free speech, it's 2006, it's technology. I don't
agree with some of what I see on there. I don't think people should slander
each other. But we're in a free country. We should embrace free speech."
Eventually Chief Manger blocked access to the site from county computers,
and the union relented, agreeing to monitor the content of the board,
delete offensive messages, and ban officers who posted sexist, racist
or inflammatory comments. But the harm has been done; a bond of trust
between many in the community and the police is significantly weakened.
Here's the ethics score on this debacle.
- The Washington Post decided to publish the postings
on a private on-line message board, postings that were originally intended
to be viewed only by other police officers. Wrong. Publishing
the posts to the world changed their meaning and character and caused
hurt and harm without good reason. The postings were the equivalent
of locker room talk, extreme comments among colleagues intended to amuse,
provoke discussion or diffuse anger and frustration. Police should be
judged on what they do, not what they think or say in private, and all
of us have the right to think anything. The public does not
"have a right to know" everything a police officer says or thinks. The
content of the message board was simply not a proper subject for a news
story, but making it a news story caused a predictable uproar. This
is called causing trouble to sell newspapers, and though journalists
will argue otherwise, it is unethical. Also unethical (and journalists
would agree with this) was the inaccuracy of the original Post story,
which blurred the fact that this was a private chat room, not a forum
under the control of the County or the police department.
- The police officers who gave the message board password to
the Post were also unethical. It is apparently true that some
had raised the matter of inflammatory messages to Manger and the union
without succeeding in effecting any change. But their obligation was
to continue working through proper channels. The conclusion is unavoidable
that the harm done by the offensive messages when they were confined
to a private website was minimal compared to the harm done to the community
once the Post published them. Giving a private password to a third party
so the third party can monitor private communications is a flat-out
breach of confidentiality and trust.
- Though officers have been disciplined and fired for postings on similar
on-line forums in some cities, community leaders and political
figures like Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) were wrong
to suggest that what an officer posts on a private
website should be the basis for dismissal. "Chief Manger must take immediate
action to remove any police officer who hides behind the anonymity of
the Internet to attack the immigrants, the minorities and women they
are hired to protect," she said. Well, there are no "attacks." Jokes,
comments, and opinions aren't "attacks" unless the subjects being denigrated
know about them and are harmed in some way. Private comments can only
be grounds for dismissal when they actually interfere with the officers'
job performance, and that only occurs when they become public. A private
comment made with assurances that it will remain private usually should
never be made public, and if the one responsible for the comment suffers
as a result of a breach of confidentiality (such as by another forum
user giving their password to the Washington Post), he is the victim
of unethical conduct.
- The police union is responsible
for the tone of its message board, and thus its failure to monitor the
comments and delete inflammatory ones was a breach of duty. The unmonitored
forum was a public relations disaster waiting to happen, and the union's
passive management created conditions that have now undermined the image
of the Montgomery County police and given minorities reason to question
whether they will be treated fairly by local law enforcement. Allowing
a blog, message board, chat room or listserv to degenerate into racial,
ethnic or sexist diatribes is a violation of basic web ethics. No person
or organization who isn't prepared to do so responsibly should launch
an on-line forum at all. The Scoreboard has heard the lament of bloggers
who have found criticism here because of the mean-spirited, profane
and unfair tone of their sites, saying that they shouldn't be "held
responsible for what posters have to say or how they say it." In a word:
baloney. An on-line forum is no different than a home, a workplace
or a letters to the editor page in that respect. The owners decide what
is acceptable discourse. That was the police union's duty in Montgomery
County, and it negligently failed to perform it. Free speech is not
the issue. The right to free speech does not excuse an organization
from allowing hateful, inflammatory or offensive messages on an on-line
- Did Chief Manger have an obligation to investigate the message board
before the Post exposé? To say so now is the height of Monday
morning quarterbacking. He is management and this is a union forum.
Letting officers blowing off steam about their supervisors is one of
the purposes of such a website, and it is likely that Manger knew that
any efforts by him to tell the union how to run its message board would
be neither heeded nor appreciated. Once the content of the site became
public, Manger was obligated to act and he did. The Scoreboard can't
fault his actions.
- The police officers who posted the offending messages
on the message board deserve some sympathy; they obviously believed
they were expressing confidential opinions and comments to colleagues.
But they were naïve, and because the nature of the internet meant
that there was a substantial likelihood that their comments would be
read by the general public, and because they should have been able to
anticipate what damage such comments could do to community relations,
they were also irresponsible. The Scoreboard is not prepared to condemn
as per se unethical the expression of an opinion, feeling or
complaint in private, no matter how intemperate, mean, unfair, crude
or hateful that expression may be. Thoughts are not unethical, and expressions
of those thoughts are not unethical if they are discreetly circulated.
But no comments conveyed by the internet can be truly discreet.
Finally, here is an ethics tip from the Ethics Scoreboard to extract
some wisdom from this unfortunate episode:
If you feel you have to do anything anonymously, perform an ethics
check first. Whether it is a comment on a blog or a message board, a
complaint about a co-worker, or a tip to the New York Times, your desire
for anonymity suggests that you are either doing something wrong, or
doing something in the wrong way. You must never be ashamed to do the
right thing, and when fear persuades you do the right thing without
taking responsibility for it, you undermine your otherwise ethical actions.
If you really believe it's right, put your name to it. And if you don't,
then you shouldn't do it at all.
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