It appears that enough dust has settled around Ms Senum’s unfortunate remarks about the nation’s police departments that we can bring closure to the factors involved in the considerable support she has received for her (now clarified) sentiments. My own support of her position was published in the 13jul16 Union and in these pages which garnered an extensive comment stream (here).
The revealing part of public attitudes became quickly apparent during the NC City Council meeting where public comment against Ms Senum was a bit in excess of two to one. At the meeting and in the media her antagonists almost uniformly demanded her apology and removal from public life. Not only that, but these folks expected the NCCC accede to their demands forthwith. The fact that the overwhelming part of them had no say in the matter beyond exercising their First Amendment rights did not occur to them, and upon reflection can still be seen to represent a broader national understanding of how policies should be made and implemented in the country’s thousands of electoral jurisdictions.
In this commentary I would like to expand on this audacious national misunderstanding, and clarify the various aspects about elected officials voicing and representing unpopular sentiments. What appears to confuse people are factors associated with such events that are independent of each other, and which should also be treated as such. These are –
- The legal expressability of an unpopular sentiment,
- Public expression of the unpopular sentiment by an elected official,
- The sharing of the sentiment by the official’s constituency,
- The right of constituents holding unpopular sentiments to be represented,
- The legal aspects of the official’s tenure in office – who/what is required to unseat,
Legal expressability: This is covered primarily by the First Amendment right of free speech, unless specifically proscribed by a public code of conduct for the elected office. All educated people know that the First Amendment does not guarantee the right for all possible instances of free speech.
Public expression by elected official: First, let’s all be clear that an elected official cannot effectively parse their speech into personal and public categories. All of their speech reflects on their duties and how they are perceived to execute their office. And all protestations to the contrary serve only to weaken the subsequent effectiveness of the elected official. After all, they were elected in great part for their displayed character and values which were taken by their constituents to be the ‘real person’ who would represent them.
Constituents’ shared sentiments: Until and unless the official’s constituents, publicly and in the aggregate, disagree and/or reject the official’s stated sentiment, it is reasonable to assume that silence presumes acceptance. Here it is important to consider the plurality of the aggregate (numbers matter), and that such disagreement does not automatically imply or dictate the official be unseated.
Representation of unpopular sentiments: In a free country, and still in America, sentiments which one cohort of franchised citizens embrace may be totally reprehensible to and rejected by another, perhaps the majority, cohort. Nevertheless, all such sentiments in every electoral jurisdiction have the right to representation in their governing bodies as enabled by the jurisdiction’s applicable election laws. In America there are no extra-legal provisions by which people from other jurisdictions may peremptorily have the offending official removed.
Who/what is required to unseat: The only provisions that exist for the removal of an official are those spelled out in the applicable laws and in any additional ‘code of conduct’ codicils to which the official is a signatory. Absent these, the official is tenured and secure in his seat, and may vacate it only through volition or reasons of health.