- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, May 20, 2014

We like to think that as we age, we get wiser. But time after time we are confronted with the fact that age by no means guarantees wisdom.

Case in point: Robert Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, who was heard to call President Barack Obama a particularly offensive racial slur preceded by a particularly offensive modifier. Apparently, Copeland cursed the president in a private conversation in a public spot and was overheard by at least one other person.

What was the 82-year-old’s response after getting called out for uttering this despicable pejorative?

“I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse (sic),” he wrote in an email response to the controversy. “For this I do not apologize - he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”

Copeland is the head of the town’s three-member police commission, which is responsible for hiring police officers. Because Copeland is an elected official and because there is no recall mechanism in Wolfeboro, the only way for him to be relieved of his position was to resign. After pressure from the town manager, the board of selectmen, residents and people around the Granite State and the nation, Copeland resigned. But that’s surely not the end of the story.

Defenders of and apologists for Copeland have cited his First Amendment rights to say what he wants, when he wants and where he wants. But Keli Goff, writing for The Root, notes Copeland’s position of authority makes his comments especially disturbing.

“While freedom of speech is clearly one of the bedrocks of American culture, the right not to fear those sworn to serve and protect us should be another. But for too many, particularly men of color, that fear is all too real.”

Ken White, writing for Popehat.com, notes that while racist speech is not sanctionable, it should have social consequences.

“When you talk, people will draw conclusions about your intentions based on your words.”

That’s exactly what is concerning to Goff. If this is the way Copeland speaks, how does his opinion influence who he approved for hire in Wolfeboro’s police department?

“Consider, for a moment, if you were a black motorist planning to visit New Hampshire anytime soon. How comfortable would you now feel driving through the town of Wolfeboro late at night, knowing that Robert Copeland played a role in dictating how officers handle traffic stops?”

Gene Howington, writing about the consequences of free speech on Jonathan Turley’s web blog, notes that if you value free speech, then you must accept you will hear things that you disagree with or offend you.

“If you don’t accept this fact, then you value freedom of speech as long as you approve of what others say first and that, by definition, is not free. If you value freedom of speech, you’ll never try to censor.”

Our response to Howington would be police, and the people who hire and fire them, are given the power of life and death over all of us and are given extreme latitude to exercise their good judgment when it comes to employing lethal force. Because of that, we should demand that those who enforce the law are as free of bias as possible and are held to the highest ethical standards. Copeland fails on both prerequisites. Calling on him to resign is not censorship; it’s paying the social consequences for his overtly expressed racism. He can now say whatever he wants to say, only not from a position of authority that affects so many people in his town.

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