The city officials in the People’s Republic of Peachtree City are slated to vote on a new ordinance Thursday that seeks to quell free speech by giving city employees and city council members the ability to sue citizens who “defame” them on social media or in new stories….all at the city’s expense.
The proposed ordinance reads “Whereas in the normal execution of their duties, elected and appointed officials and employees of the city may be subject to unwarranted public defamation when formal complaints are unwarranted and … the City Council deems it in the best interest of the city to indemnify, defend and protect city elected and appointed officials … Peachtree City shall fund legal action on the part of any elected official, appointed official, or employee … who has been defamed in a public media outlet.”
But wait! There’s more.
The city would be awarded, per the proposed ordinance, its legal expenses and damages if it prevails in court. And the city attorney would be paid 20% more than the usual city attorney retainer to file the lawsuit. (The Citizen has some other background and some commentary to the poor fools who work for the city and took a public stance on this proposal for all of us to ridicule.)
If the Council approves this measure, it would be the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.
Where do I even begin?
First of all, I can’t imagine being so afraid of public criticism that I would desire a new law. That’s a pretty disappointing excuse for a public official. Second, I can’t imagine being so dense that I would believe a measly ordinance in a city of 35,000 would somehow trump the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has also found the protections to be important enough to hold the opinion in direct opposition of Peachtree City for more than five decades. See New York Times Co v. Sullivan.
And then, of course, despite what Rep. Andy Welch and his cohorts are seeking to do, there’s the state statute that protects individuals and the media as well. O.C.G.A 9-11-11.1 reads:
The General Assembly of Georgia finds and declares that it is in the public interest to encourage participation by the citizens of Georgia in matters of public significance through the exercise of their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. The General Assembly of Georgia further finds and declares that the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for a redress of grievances should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process.
With regard to the First Amendment and the protections that trickle down from it, there is no distinction between “the media” and “the people.” Free speech is protected all the same.
It’s troubling that the proposed ordinance seeks to pay the city attorney more for these types of lawsuits when the attorney is seemingly so ignorant of legal precedent. I would genuinely question his qualifications for the job.
We also have the clueless City Manager, Jon Rorie, who is quoted in The Citizen saying “People think they have the luxury of saying false things about people. No one has the right to say I (or anyone working or volunteering for the city) am corrupt and attack me publicly.”
He’s right about the “false things” and there’s already a legal remedy for that, but he is way wrong about calling someone “corrupt” or “attacking publicly.” The belief that someone is “corrupt” is an opinion, is protected speech, and another facet protected by Supreme Court rulings. Feeling attacked is also an emotion, not a fact, and one that shows the insecurity of those in public office more than it does anything about the citizens or the media.
Another problem is that this doesn’t just apply to citizens in Peachtree City. With this new invention best known as “The Internet,” city officials could go after just about anyone who has something negative to say.
This is yet another war on the First Amendment in an attempt to squash criticism and critique of those who spend their days spending our tax dollars…and it’s unacceptable.
All of this nonsense in Peachtree City stems from real and/or perceived ethics violations, which is why transparent and open government is so important. With open government, the perception of corruption and the attacks on public officials are much more limited. Public officials are generally more secure in their own actions because they already know what they’re doing is out front for the public to see. The public feels more comfortable knowing they can access, address, and critique their government.
Without it, you get ordinances like this and overzealous public officials who, quite frankly, are everything wrong with government these days. (That’s a professional opinion, if Peachtree City would like to make me their first suit.)
I took it upon myself to look up the city officials if you were so inclined to reach out to them about their nonsense, as I did. You can obtain all of their email addresses here. Let’s make an example out of them.
You can read the entire proposal here.