Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a bill on Thursday that would prohibit local public employees from displaying symbols that could be perceived as promoting hate speech.
Clarke proposed the bill three weeks after BuzzFeed News published a story about a Philadelphia police officer who faced no discipline for displaying a tattoo on his arm that looks a lot like the emblem adopted by the Nazi party during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power — the only difference being that there’s no swastika inside the wreath hanging from the bird’s talons. After BuzzFeed News contacted police officials for comment in September, the department for the first time ordered Officer Ian Lichterman to cover it up while on duty.
“No employee, and certainly no citizen, should be made to feel offended or fearful because of what a public employee says, wears, or does,” Clarke said in a statement. “We have the right as an employer to set guidelines for conduct, and we have an obligation to earn the trust of the people we serve — particularly those belonging to groups targeted for discrimination.”
The bill authorizes the city’s commissioner of public property to set penalties for public employees caught on official city property knowingly displaying symbols, carrying objects, or using speech that “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation.”
Lichterman, who declined interview requests, told BuzzFeed News that the tattoo represents his “German heritage" and strongly denied having any "swastika or Third Reich–related tattoos." The department’s internal affairs unit opened an investigation into the tattoo last year, clearing Lichterman of wrongdoing because, a police spokesperson explained, the tattoo did not violate any departmental policies.
“In terms of your brains or your thoughts or your ideology, is that something we want to police?” Captain Sekou Kinebrew said. “As long as you’re not violating public trust, it’s very difficult to police.”
The law proposed on Thursday does not specifically mention tattoos, but it would give the city greater power to determine what qualifies as prohibited speech among its employees.
“Council President Clarke has been working on legislation to address the ‘Nazi tattoo’ problem via public property ordinances — meaning, barring certain symbols from public spaces, which could strengthen administrative actions regarding body art and clothing in the Police Department, for example,” Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Clarke, told BuzzFeed News in an email last week.
Legal experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that government has wide latitude to protect its institutions, including barring speech and behavior that undermine public trust.
“If you are a public employee and your speech when you are not doing your job is going to affect how you do your job and how your employer functions, your employer may be able to fire you or limit that speech,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News last month. “It’s really going to be a question of whether the public is going to associate that tattoo with his job as a public servant — whether it’s going to interfere with his ability to constructively interact with people in minority communities.”