photograph of police officer with blurred civilians in the background

Last week, a police officer was fired over the details of an anonymous donation he made. Norfolk Police Lieutenant William Kelly contributed $25 to a legal defense fund for Kenosha shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse last September. That donation was accompanied by a message:

“God bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong. Every rank and file police officer supports you. Don’t be discouraged by actions of the political class of law enforcement leadership.”

Kelly’s donation was anonymous and only made public following a security breach of Christian crowdfunding website GiveSendGo when data was shared with and circulated by Distributed Denial of Secrets and later published by The Guardian.

In the wake of his firing, GiveSendGo has started a fundraising campaign for Kelly. Co-founder Heather Wilson argues that “Regardless of how you feel regarding Kyle Rittenhouse, the fact is that Mr. Kelly’s individual rights have been grossly violated.” His donation “wasn’t against the law, but a criminal hacker group and a biased media outlet decided that was enough to make an example of him.”

This particular framing conforms to a broader (misleading) narrative regarding cancel culture’s all-out assault on individual rights. The story is presented by some as the obvious overreach of the progressive thought police. Kelly, these voices claim, is being persecuted merely for holding private, personal opinions that a powerful bunch have deemed distasteful. Woke mob rule has conspired once again to force the hand of another institution to cut ties with a controversial figure or risk being tarred with the same brush. What was once a call for boycott or an urging to deplatform has transformed into something much bigger. This isn’t a mere public shaming; Kelly’s dismissal highlights the serious threat to professional livelihood: an 18-year veteran and the second-highest ranking officer in the Norfolk Police Department lost his job in less than 72 hours.

Given the situation, labor lawyers like Ray Hogge have suggested that the firing was “inappropriate and illegal.” Kelly’s dismissal is a violation of his rights of speech and association. As a free citizen, Kelly is at liberty to support any charitable cause he chooses, regardless of whether city leaders approve. Employers shouldn’t be in the business of picking and choosing the values their employees can espouse. And this should be especially true in the case of a private, off-duty communication between friends.

The trouble is that Mr. Kelly’s rights are not the only rights at issue. His interests must be weighed against the state’s interest in delivering impartial justice for us all. Kelly’s case is more than just a matter of bad optics or a squeamish politician rolling over to avoid backlash from a mob spoiling for a fight. This is a state official countermanding the expressed purpose and obligations of the post he serves a post that sometimes requires the use of deadly force. Kelly’s words give us reason to question whether he can adequately execute the functions of his office.

Even out of uniform, officers have a duty to uphold public image and not engage in activities that might erode respect for the badge. As Police Chief Larry D. Boone made clear,

“A police department cannot do its job when the public loses trust with those whose duty is to serve and protect them. We do not want perceptions of any individual officer to undermine the relations between the Norfolk Police Department and the community.”

The effect Kelly’s position as an officer of the law has on this speech act (even in private as a public citizen) appears inescapable (for discussion see A.G. Holdier’s “Pastor Fritts, the First Amendment, and Public and Private Reason”). His incidental use of his police department email in making the donation helps to highlight the trouble: Lt. Kelly is incapable of speaking on this matter while wearing a different hat. A police officer expressing support for a vigilante (publicly or privately) and suggesting that outlaw is above the law is fundamentally at odds with the sworn duty to protect and serve. It betrays an indifference to the law he is meant to uphold and to the exclusive position that he occupies. It confers legitimacy on some while denying it to others and fails to discourage us from taking the law into our own hands.

But there remains much that needs to be settled. Rittenhouse only stands accused and has pleaded not guilty on the basis of self-defense; the jury is still out. Unfortunately, this fact means that Kelly’s endorsement is more egregious, not less. Choosing to support a suspect before his day in court is a problematic stance for law enforcement to take. The police shouldn’t stand as judge, jury, and executioner. Kelly’s actions are objectionable, then, not because he chose the wrong side in the culture war, but because he chose to take a side at all.