2nd Circuit: Conn. city can force police to cover tattoos

Thursday, February 2, 2006

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court said yesterday that Hartford, Conn., police officers with offensive tattoos can be ordered not to display them, disappointing five officers who claimed the ban violates their First Amendment rights.

“A police department has a reasonable interest in not offending or appearing unprofessional before the public it serves,” the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

The three-judge panel said a lower court judge was right last March to dismiss the lawsuit brought by five policemen against the city and its former police chief.

The plaintiffs had argued that a city order giving the police chief the authority to ban offensive tattoos was unconstitutional because it violated their First Amendment rights.

The 2nd Circuit noted in Inturri v. City of Hartford that the order affects only tattoos displayed by on-duty police officers. It said the First Amendment rights of public employees are significantly more limited than those of the general public.

A lawyer for the five policemen, Jon L. Schoenhorn, said the courts were being unfair.

“Public employees certainly do not lose all their rights just because they receive a paycheck from a public entity,” he said.

Schoenhorn said his clients' so-called spider tattoo, which looks like a spider web, was banned by the Hartford Police Department after a disgruntled detective who was angry at a union for police employees claimed the tattoo had racial overtones.

The lawyer said his own research indicated the tattoo began during the Vietnam War and each line of the web pertained to how many tours of duty were performed overseas. He conceded that a white supremacy group had adopted the spider tattoo, among dozens of others, but he said the officers should not be punished for that.

“Just because some racist organization decided to adopt it, it did not suddenly transform these officers into racists,” Schoenhorn said.

The five officers are upset in part because the order forces them to wear armbands over their elbow tattoos when they wear short-sleeve shirts, their lawyer said.

“It's singling them out for ridicule,” he said. “Some are military vets.”

He said the police department had created a precedent for any tattoo to be banned if someone complained about it or linked it to a hate group.

“Now it's going to be open season,” he said. “If somebody doesn't like a cross or an American flag, you'll have to cover that, too.”

A telephone message for comment left with Hartford's law office was not immediately returned.

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