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Freedom of Speech or Tarnishing the Badge?

When a St. Louis police officer decided to protest our current marijuana laws, he was disciplined as using his position to become a lobbyist. Now, he’s suing the department for infringing on his rights.

It’s always a tough call when someone in public service wants to push for one side or the other on an issue. In Sgt. Wiegart’s case, he registered as a lobbyist for an organization that promotes legalization of marijuana for medical use. But unlike some other “second jobs” officers may pick up, such as mall security guard or private investigator, Police Chief Sam Dotson thought the activity inappropriate. Since officers must get department approval before taking on other work, this put Sgt. Wiegart and the department at odds.

According to The Post Dispatch, Sgt. Weigart sued when he permission was revoked. He believes it is directly related to the subject of his lobbying efforts, since marijuana is still illegal in our state.

It may seem surprising that a police officer would agree to push for legalization, but there is actually a national organization which does just that, with members from all segments of the criminal justice community. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is made up of police officers, judges, prosecutors and others with the stated goal of ending the severe penalties for drug crimes. They do speak with authority, since all are very familiar with how drug addicts are treated in the criminal justice system.

Since Sgt. Weigart will be paid for his services, it is unclear whether he is protected under the First Amendment clause allowing freedom of speech, especially as regards matters of political opinion. Lobbyists are treated as a special, regulated class and do not have the same permissions that other citizens do when it comes to pressing their cases with politicians. However, so long as Sgt. Weigart follows the rules, there doesn’t seem to be any particular provision that would prevent him from taking on the work – so long as it was clear he was acting on behalf of his client and not the police department.

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