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Court: OK to Fire Cop for Calling Protestor 'Fat Cow'
CHICAGO (CN) - An off-duty police officer cannot get his job back after insulting an anti-abortion demonstrator's weight to show that "the truth sometimes hurts," a federal judge ruled.
Dick Lalowski worked as a police officer in Des Plaines, Ill., from 1994 until 2008, when he was fired after a hostile off-duty interaction with anti-abortion protesters.
In May 2006, Lalowski was on duty and in uniform when he drove by an abortion clinic and told a group of anti-abortion demonstrators not to impede traffic or stop anyone from entering the clinic. He admits that the interaction was adversarial.
Approximately 15 minutes later, Lalowski returned his equipment to the police station and went off duty. He testified that he was upset at the demonstrators' display of images of aborted fetuses.
"At that time I was thinking about why would somebody put those signs out there, why would anybody who was trying to help people do that [?] I had to know," Lalowski said in his deposition (brackets in original).
Lalowski then returned to the abortion clinic in plainclothes and in his personal vehicle. He approached a demonstrator, Paula Emmerth, asked her if she remembered him from earlier. He then told the woman that he was off duty and "not here representing anybody."
When Lalowski asked "why she had to show those signs," Emmerth replied that she wanted to tell the truth about abortion.
Lalowski responded: "OK. Let's talk about the truth then. You're fat." He told the demonstrators that they should not display the signs because "the truth sometimes hurts," and that such images could upset a woman who had miscarried.
When Emmerth refused to take down the signs, Lalowski called her a "fat fucking cow" and a "sinner of gluttony." He then got down on his hands and knees to show her some exercises she could do to lose weight.
Lalowski told Emmerth she would be a beautiful woman if she was not so fat, and asked her sarcastically if she was hiding food somewhere.
During the one hour and 20 minutes he spent at the demonstration, Lalowski also compared the activists to the Taliban and compared the aborted fetus displays to an image of a Catholic priest leaning over a small boy.
Two demonstrators called 911 to request assistance, but it is unclear if the police acted upon these calls.
Based on this incident, the Board of Fire & Police Commissioners fired Lalowski for conduct unbecoming a police officer. Lalowski challenged the decision, arguing that he was exercising his right to free speech while off duty.
On review, U.S. District Judge James Zagel found that Lalowski's conduct undermined the public's confidence in the police force, a matter of far greater concern than his unprofessional comments.
"Although I think it a serious stretch, at this stage I am willing to accept plaintiff's argument that when he called Emmerth a 'fat fucking cow' he intended it as a pointed example of how the truth can hurt, as part of his broader argument that sometimes the starkest forms of truth - i.e. graphic images of aborted fetuses - must be softened to facilitate constructive discourse," Zagel wrote.
He added: "However, I find that defendants had a legitimate overriding interest in prohibiting their officers from using such profane and insulting language toward members of the public. Public trust in the police is critical to effective law enforcement and it is seriously eroded when police officers are perceived as abusing their authority or behaving unprofessionally. The public is far less likely to cooperate with law enforcement if they anticipate they will not be treated with respect - or worse, subject to verbal abuse. It is difficult to imagine more abusive language than calling someone a 'fat fucking cow.'"
A number of demonstrators testified that they felt scared and intimidated by Lalowski's presence and felt helpless in the face of a police officer "out of control."
"It is difficult to imagine anything more damaging to Defendants' legitimate interests (or basic social order) than a citizenry that fears its own police force," Zagel wrote (parentheses in original).
"Plaintiff's behavior was not only embarrassing for the police department, it undermined public confidence that its officers could be trusted to act within the boundaries of the laws they are charged with enforcing," he added.
"Given its attenuated connection to any issue of public concern, its profane and insulting nature, and defendants' overwhelming legitimate interests in prohibiting such speech, I find that Plaintiff's repeated use of the phrase 'fat fucking cow' is not protected and served as a legitimate basis for his discharge," the judge concluded.
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