Topic: Science & Technology

The Ethics Score on the Maryland Police Message Board Controversy
(4/19/2006)

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 offensive language.

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 forum.

  • 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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