CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments Friday about whether Chicago police officers’ tattoos are protected by the First Amendment or whether they can be required to cover them up.
In mid-2015, former police superintendant Gary McCarthy implemented a policy requiring Chicago police officers to cover up any visible tattoos while on duty. Tattooed officers were required to wear long sleeves, even during the hot summer, or wear cover-up tape.
Three officers filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policy on First Amendment grounds.
Lead plaintiff Officer Daniel Medici, an Iraq War veteran, has a wings-and-halo tattoo in remembrance of his fallen comrades. The two other plaintiffs, Officers John Kukielka and Dennis Leet, each have a religious tattoo of St. Michael, the patron saint of police.
At oral arguments Friday, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner wanted to know, “How does a halo with wings communicate something about people killed in combat?”
The officers’ attorney Linda Friedman said, “The symbol is one recognized in the military,” but would not go so far as to say it would be readily recognized as a war memorial by a person on the street in Chicago.
The judges were skeptical that the officers could recover any monetary damages for emotional injuries allegedly caused by the policy, which was only enforced for nine months before an arbitrator found that it violated the police union’s contract.
The Chicago Police Department scrapped the rules in September, citing the need to boost morale.
But the Seventh Circuit panel also questioned the city’s stated interest in preserving the “uniformity and professionalism” of the force.
“Don’t you have to say why uniformity is important?” Judge Kenneth Ripple asked city attorney Stephen Collins. “‘Uniformity and professionalism’ – we hear that a lot, and it strikes me like a buzzword. What does the city gain by making an officer wear long sleeves in the summer to cover up a halo with wings?”
Posner proposed that perhaps a citizen, seeing an officer’s tattoo of St. Michael, might suppose they were being pulled over for violating the policeman’s religious sensibilities.
“But that has to be in the record,” Ripple said.
Judge Diane Sykes sought to compare the tattoo policy to a prohibition on jewelry with a religious connotation, such as a crucifix, but Collins was not familiar with the department’s policy.
Judge Ripple said he would be concerned if he was pulled over by an officer wearing a Masonic ring.
In rebuttal, Friedman informed the panel that the uniform policies allow officers to wear up to three rings, and do not regulate the content of those rings.
“So an officer could wear a KKK ring, but not a tattoo of St. Michael?” Ripple asked.
“That is correct,” Friedman said.
She repeatedly told the judges that no citizen had ever complained about an officer’s tattoos, and the policy was simply a result of the former superintendant’s personal dislike of tattoos.
Friedman asked the panel to reverse the dismissal of the case on standing grounds and allow the officers a trial on the question of damages.
It is unclear when the Seventh Circuit will rule in the case.