Tennessee Town Passes Policy Banning Negative Comments About The Town's Government

from the the-Supreme-Court-has-roundly-rejected-prior-restraint dept

The commissioners of a small Tennessee town have just voted to ban negative comments about it from social media. This stupid move was prompted by “criticism and lies” being posted online, which supposedly “hampered” the town’s government from performing its duties.

South Pittsburg City is a town of 3,000. This fact will limit the damage done by its city commissioners’ new policy (which passed with 4-1 vote), but only because the town itself is tiny. The ban, however, is super-broad. (via Ben Swann and BRACE YOURSELF for always-awesome AUTOPLAY)

It applies to all city elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anyone associated with the town in an official capacity who uses social networks. The policy says those persons can’t post anything negative about the city, its employees or other associates.

Examples include posted videos, blogs, online forum discussions, Facebook and Twitter, Commissioner Jeff Powers said.

Now, it’s obvious that this ban violates the First Amendment rights of everyone involved. It’s obvious to the lone dissenting voter, Paul Don King. It’s not so obvious to the rest of the commissioners, who have offered a variety of terrible defenses the new policy.

Commissioner Jeff Powers:

“It seems like every few meetings we’re having to address something that’s been on Facebook and created negative publicity,” he said. “This is just an industry standard nowadays.”

Oh, lord. Have you ever heard of such a slight inconvenience? “Every few meetings.” Sounds exhausting. If he thinks it’s a drag dealing with negative comments periodically, just wait until he has to actively police social media for violators.

One, you’re a government, not an “industry.” So, that makes this move censorship rather than some sort of half-assed town TOS. It’s called prior restraint and it’s something the Supreme Court has recognized as a violation of First Amendment rights. You can’t just tell any group of people they can’t criticize the town or its employees/”other associates.” That’s not an “industry standard.” It’s not even a “government standard.” Criticism is to be expected, not shut down.

Powers follows that up by attempting to clarify the situation, but only makes it more incomprehensible.

Powers said the policy doesn’t forbid the use of social media, and it can be amended in the future.

“The first thing everyone wants to say is ‘I can’t post anything on Facebook,'” he said. “Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature. You can go ahead and post all you want.”

Oh, OK. You’re not banning anyone employed by or doing business with the city from using social media. You’re just forbidding them from criticizing anyone employed by or doing business with the city. You can “post all you want” EXCEPT.

And “fixing it in post” with amendments isn’t a great way to run a town’s government. The idea is to produce good policies and statutes, not bad statutes that need to be amended (or rolled back) before they can mesh with the Constitution.

City Attorney Billy Gouger said the new policy is not intended to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech.

“What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights,” he said. “It does, to some extent, limit your ability to criticize or comment in an official capacity.”

I am completely lost as to how Gouger has managed to reconcile the policy he passed with the words he’s saying in defense of it. It is definitely “intended to curtail free speech.” Free speech is the opposite of this policy’s wording. How is “limiting your ability to criticize or comment” not a limit of free speech? Because it’s in an “official capacity?” Even if that limitation manages to pass Constitutional muster (and good luck!), the limitation is effectively meaningless because the range of people this policy covers is so broad. “Volunteers, vendors and contractors” are still private citizens even if they’re doing business with the town.

If you want to write individual agreements with each of these listed parties stating that doing business with (or being employed by) South Pittsburg City means not criticizing South Pittsburg City, then by all means do so. These parties can waive their rights, but it’s still their choice. You can’t just take it away. That (again) is prior restraint — something that is exactly a “limit on free speech.”

Finally, some words of “wisdom” from the mayor herself.

“Criticism is one thing,” Mayor Jane Dawkins said. “Out-and-out lies and untruths — that’s another thing. Those kinds of things are the things that will be directed.”

Hey, there’s a civil process for dealing with lies and untruths. Try using that instead. Libel and defamation are not protected speech and any of the four easily-bruised members of the city commission should avail themselves of that remedy. Shutting people up with a stupid, unconstitutional policy isn’t the answer, no matter how small your town is. That the number of people whose free speech rights have just been constrained will likely be low is no excuse. It’s still what it is: censorship in the form of prior restraint.

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Comments on “Tennessee Town Passes Policy Banning Negative Comments About The Town's Government”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I await to see how many 0’s will be on the settlement checks when they get sued, lose hard, appeal, get smacked harder, appeal again and eventually turn the whole town against them.

Perhaps if they communicated in an open fashion with the citizens they could deal with these issues out in the open and dispel all of the gossip and such.

He thinks he has a right to not be offended because he is in office… that should be a clue he shouldn’t be in office. If someone working for the city tweeting I think he’s an asshole requires a “law” perhaps the sad truth is… he is an asshole.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Is it time to openly hate on the town’s leaders to line up position in the lawsuit to claim some of those 0’s on the settlement check?

Have you not learnt that politics is a a game played with the money provided by those that the politicians claim to represent. A lawsuit against the politicians will have both sides legal bills, and any awards funded by the town’s people, without denting the bank accounts of the politicians.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem with a lawsuit is that it takes time to work its way through the court system.
And while it’s going through the system and until it’s struck down (which it eventually will be), there were will be all kinds of costs involved.
And guess what? These councilmen don’t have to pay for the lawsuits, so what do they care how much it costs the taxpayers? After all, it’s not like it’s coming out of their own pockets.

It would be refreshing if lawmakers had to pay for bad laws and laws that they know are bad out of their salary. Why should they care if their law will be struck down in 3 or 5 years? They’re still making their salary.

All those 0’s that you talk about? That will come from increased property taxes because the city will have to pay off the people who sue them. Yay- higher taxes to fight an unconstitutional law that never should have been passed in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

and i suppose there will be no change to this until someone has done the exact thing this new ‘law’ is supposed to stop and it then all goes to court, raising the issue into the nations spotlights and the council members either singularly or collectively get a massive legal bill!! if making total plums of themselves is what the members are after, go ahead!

Michael (profile) says:

It applies to all city elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anyone associated with the town in an official capacity who uses social networks. The policy says those persons can’t post anything negative about the city, its employees or other associates.

I’m unable to see how they intend to run campaigns for re-election under this policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

“What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights,” he said. “It does, to some extent, limit your ability to criticize or comment in an official capacity.”

The policy encourages those people to separate themselves privately from their position with the city, Gouger said.

OK, seriously, I need to see the exact wording of this policy. They have every right to ban negative comments *in an official capacity*. Like if someone had an official city Twitter account or city Facebook account, the city would have the right to control what was posted by those accounts.

Without reading the policy, I can’t tell if it’s actually in violation of anything.

scotts13 (profile) says:

It WILL stand until they're sued

The little Pennsylvania town I used to live in gathered some of it’s income from an “occupational category” tax – you paid a fixed fee depending on what your job title was. Doctors so much, street sweepers less, “housewives” a pittance. It’s been struck down as unrepresentative and illegal everywhere it’s been challenged, and the town agrees it should be eliminated. BUT, they see no reason to do so until a citizen specifically (pays to) challenge it. It’s been decades…

Anonymous Coward says:

Pittsburg is such a wonderful town it takes away the free speech of its employee’s, so there are no worries about meaningful discussions ..we keep it simple here , so when we take our citizens money no one will know how we mismanage it see how easy that is now we can eliminate the stress , next year we will rename our town Stepford.

Kenpachi says:

Can you spell hypocrisy?

These are two of the official “Values” they claim to defend.

* To ensure professional and ethical conduct by City employees.
* Be a citizen-oriented government which operates as an efficient, friendly business entity.

How do you like dem apples?


They really should change the site’s address to OfficialCensorship.gov 😛

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Can you spell hypocrisy?

So the city is run by Communists!!! Well I see that happening all over in time. So many Democrats believe in that these days. If your a Republican that tried to go to a Collage as a speaker, you’re get Protested right out of there. They don’t want you speaking at all. You’re free to speak so long as you agree with them. That’s the attitude more and more these days, so I’m not really surprised a City Did this. I’m sure all that voted for this crap were Democrats. I don’t even have to look. The Court better throw this crap out.

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