A complaint filed last week by a Jacksonville pastor against Mayor Lenny Curry’s campaign for using police officers in a political ad might make a valid case, according to a University of North Florida professor.
UNF Communications Professor Brian Thornton, who teaches media law and ethics, said the “Cops for Curry” ad might violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain government employees from taking part in political activity.
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“You have the right to express your point of view, your own personal point of voice, but make sure when you say it you say you’re not representing the city,” said Thornton. “But if I am a cop and I am wearing a policeman’s uniform and I say I endorse so and so, it kind of looks like the whole police department is endorsing that candidate.”
The Hatch Act, which was enacted in 1939, was designed to keep elections fair and balanced by barring bosses or people in power from intimidating federal employees to vote a certain way.
Up until 1993, the Hatch Act only applied to federal races. But a series of court cases in the 1990s expanded the definition to include officials running in local and state races, said Thornton.
The Hatch Act complaint against Curry and his campaign was filed by Pastor R. L. Gundy on behalf of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition. Gundy said he sprang into action because the “Curry for Cops” ad appeared to be unethical.
“When the community sees [the ad] what they see is a collision with police officers and the mayor,” he said. “Everybody may not agree with the mayor’s philosophy, so they need to stay out politics.”
Curry’s campaign manager Tim Baker shrugged off the complaint as a political stunt because its filer is a supporter of mayoral candidate Anna Brosche.
Gundy hosted Brosche’s town hall at his church in Springfield Friday.
“It’s inappropriate for our active law enforcement members to be involved in political campaigns,” said Brosche. “Certainly any can do what they want on their own time and not wearing uniforms and badges and utilizing equipment that is assigned by the city.”
Thornton shares a similar sentiment. He said having cops campaign in uniform for a city official seems unethical.
"I think if they said I endorse this candidate that's fine, as long as it's expressing your personal point of view," he said. "But if you say 'Cops for Curry,' I think you're crossing the line."
He said the ad could be interpreted as representing the entire Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Thornton, who is not an expert in the Hatch Act, said he isn’t aware of any precedent, but he encountered the issue as a reporter in Honolulu, Hawaii back in the 1970s.
The case involved a fire captain who was endorsing a candidate. The captain went to a political rally wearing a fireman’s uniform and spoke out for a candidate.
“The court said you need to not do that, but they didn’t say you’re guilty or not guilty,” said Thornton. “But they just said you can’t do it. He apologized and they moved on.”
That incident happened when the Hatch Act applied exclusively to federal employees.
The unitary election is on March 19. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes, plus 1, the top two will go to a runoff.