Body art (aka tattoos) is enjoying a great deal of popularity these days, especially among younger generations. Police departments sometimes struggle with how to regulate tattoo exposure among their officers. Last week the district court dismissed a suit filed by Chicago police officers claiming that a newly enacted policy requiring police officers to cover tattoos while on duty was a violation of their First Amendment rights of free speech.
In Medici v. City of Chicago, the plaintiffs were Chicago police officers and all armed forces veterans. The Chicago Police Department issued a revision to its dress code policy last June which required all officers to cover any tattoos that were visible outside of clothing with skin colored adhesive bandages or tattoo covers when they were on duty or representing the Department. The plaintiffs all had tattoos either memorializing their armed forces service or their religious beliefs that were visible when wearing their uniforms.
In dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint, the court found that the Police Department’s interest in maintaining a professional and uniform force outweighed the plaintiffs’ interest in personal expression. The court noted that tattoos are often only symbols which are subject to misinterpretation which could erode the trust and respect necessary for officers to do their job. Furthermore, the expression symbolized by a tattoo is neither of public interest and the policy is not a wholesale deterrent of expression because the officers are only required to cover their tattoos when they are working or representing the Department.
While it is likely that the plaintiffs will appeal the dismissal of their complaint, the decision lends real guidance to employers. While the court’s decision will not apply to most employees, it clearly upholds an employer’s right to require cover up of tattoos for employees who are visible to the public and when trust and respect are integral to effective provision of services.