Domelights is a web forum much like our own, except that where our members discuss games, adoption, and what not, the members of Domelights discuss how great it is to be a cop in Philadelphia.
Officer Rochelle Bilal of the Philadelphia Police Department is not a fan of Domelights. While Officer Bilal, who is black, agrees that it's great to be a Philadelphia cop, she doesn't understand why some of the members at Domelights, presumably cops themselves, feel compelled to spend so much time discussing black people in derogatory terms.
So Officer Rochelle is suing to have the site shut down.
The suit maintains that officers often make postings from department computers and that it is well-known among members of the nation's fourth-largest department. Though postings are anonymous, the site's founder and moderator — who uses the screen name "McQ" — is known to be an active sergeant in the department, the suit alleges.
"The Guardian Civic League has been watching Domelights for the past two years," said Rochelle Bilal, the group's president. "We are sick and tired of them hurting our people by their comments. … They are further dividing this institution."
The lawsuit cites racially derogatory commentary on the site, including one posting that says: "Guns don't kill people … Dangerous minorities do." Other posts include racial slurs and encourage racial profiling, according to the lawsuit.
I've uploaded a copy of the suit here: Guardian Civic v Philadelphia PD Domelights
In fairneess to Domelights, in addition to discussing how much they hate black people, the forum also hosts discussions on Philadelphia sports, restaurants, politics in general, and more. It's a general interest forum, populated by cops.
The members of the Domelights forum, it's safe to say, aren't too pleased about the suit. While Domelights itself is named as a party (by the way, good luck collecting damages from the owner of an open web forum just because its members write mean things), the main thrust of the suit is that the Philadelphia Police Department, itself a party, should be compelled to order its officers not to participate on the forum. On pain of firing.
The suit is phrased in terms of civil rights, alleging that by allowing officers to post at Domelights, on or off the job, the Department subjects Bilal and other black officers to a hostile work environment. I've poked around Domelights myself, and can't say that I like much of what I read there. (Surprise – they also hate lawyers.) Nor for that matter am I fan of the Philadelphia PD in general, for reasons covered by my co-blogger Ken. But eh, I've read and heard worse. Ultimately the case may end with the city ordering officers not to use work computers for any personal purpose, leaving more interesting First Amendment issues undecided.
But here's where the case gets interesting. Right now at Domelights, there are a number of discussions (based on the New Haven firefighter case) of what a horrible, racist judge Sonia Sotomayor is and will be when she's confirmed for the Supreme Court. Now I can't say what Third Circuit case law has to say about whether a public employer, such as the Philadelphia Police Department, can fire its employees for holding racist beliefs or for racist speech.
But I do know what the nearby Second Circuit has to say on the issue: YES WE CAN!
That was the conclusive holding of Pappas v. Giuliani, a 2002 decision in which the Court held, 2-1, that the New York Police Department could fire Officer Thomas Pappas for mailing racist materials and belonging to something called The National Association for the Advancement of White People.
The lone dissenting judge in the case? Sonia Sotomayor, who would have held that Pappas's ideas and actions, while repulsive, were constitutionally protected even though he held a position of public responsibility as a police officer.
Pappas is a hard case from either side. Personally I'm reluctantly inclined to side, with Sotomayor while at the same time shuddering in the knowledge that, had one of Sotomayor's colleagues joined her, a thoroughly vile character might still be on the New York Police Department.
Of course in some ways the Pappas case is easier than what's alleged here. Pappas's speech was far more loathsome than the "locker room" casual redneck racism that's complained of in Domelights. But in others the Pappas case is harder. There was no evidence Pappas's speech was repeated on the job, while the Philly PD allegedly allows officers to post at Domelights from work computers.
This case, if its litigated fully (and it should be, as it presents interesting issues on the First Amendment and the Civil Rights Act), may wind up before Sonia Sotomayor one day. If and when that happens, she may have the opportunity, in the most emphatic way, to reverse her Second Circuit colleagues.
Do you think the folks at Domelights will appreciate her if that day comes?