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City Limits Employees’ Free Speech

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Published on: December 20, 2014

Individuals living in South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee, will now find that transparency and civic engagement as it relates to city business will now be curtailed. In a stunning 4-1 vote of city commissioners in a December meeting, ” all elected officials, city employees, city contractors, volunteers and anyone else doing official business with the city” are prohibited from making negative comments on “private social media accounts about anyone or anything with any connection to city government.” While this new “policy” does not criminalize any negative comments, it does require elected officials, contractors, city employees and those who do business with the city to sign a contract relinquishing their right to freedom of speech and showing their willingness to be subjected to punishment should they violate their “signed agreement.”

What could have provoked such a drastic measures from city commissioners? According to Commissioner Jeff Powers, supporter of the policy, “It seems like, every few meetings, we’re having to address something that’s been on Facebook and created negative publicity.” Powers went on to say that people may still post whatever they want on Facebook, as long as it is not anything that “sheds negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature.”

Powers maintains the policy doesn’t forbid the use of social media. Of course it doesn’t. It just prohibits what you can post on social media.

Mayor of South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee, Jane Dawkins, indicated the measure was directed at silencing what she termed “out and out lies and untruths.”

Is what she terms “out and out lies and untruths” actual cases of libel, slander, and defamation of character in social media, or just things she doesn’t want exposed? Is what Mayor Dawkins identifies as “out and out lies and untruths” someone’s personal opinion and perception, such as someone calling her an “idiot” because of a bad policy decision? Or, has that someone exposed a “truth” she and the city commissioners didn’t want known and now seek to “shut down” those willing to expose them?

City Attorney, Bill Gouger stated, in interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, that the “policy” is not intended to restrict or infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. He explained, rather clearly, the intent of this policy.

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

Gouger went on to say that the policy should encourage individuals to separate themselves privately from their positions with the city; and, that the policy is intended to “minimize personal attacking” and casting individuals in a negative light.

Well, elected officials of South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee – welcome to politics and the fishbowl you willingly entered.

The lone voice commissioner who voted against this policy, Paul Don King, stated he can see both sides of the argument. In a statement to the press, King stated, “But what we [the board] are saying is that if I’m a city employee, you’re telling me what I can say at night. I call that freedom of speech. I can’t understand that.”

You are not alone, Commissioner King. Any employment with anyone, government or otherwise, should not be conditional on surrendering the right to freedom of speech. Another slap in the face is the possibility of “punishment” against someone should their definition of a “violation” occur.

Each state has laws regarding libel, slander, and defamation of character. Isn’t it interesting that none of these legal avenues were reported as occurring against such “out and out lies and untruths” as it pertained to posts on “social media.” These elected officials should have given credible examples of the purported “out and out lies and untruths.” Of course, everyone is supposed to take their word for it that libel, slander, and defamation of character occurred on “social media” without one legal action being filed to back up that claim.

It would stand to reason that what these officials term as “out and out lies and untruth” prompting such a policy has some flavor of truth or they wouldn’t be so quick to silence it.

One has to wonder what the election process holds for this small Tennessee town. In one fell swoop, the local powers that be have severely limited free expression by free individuals on social media sites during future races to elect city officials. The commissioners, along with the mayor, have now empowered themselves to determine “truth and untruth” on social media based on what they do or do not like. How convenient.

What about the usual “mud-slinging” that occurs during many a political campaign for office? Local elections can get rather “dicey” at times. Does this mean that a city employee running for office against an incumbent would be “silenced” because of speaking out against the actions of that incumbent when engaging in city business? Sure sounds like it if it occurs in the social media realm.

It is not unusual for employees of companies or governments to consider their bosses to be “idiots,” especially when these individuals engage in activities deserving of the designation. How many employees have designated a superior as “incompetent” when their actions warrant the label? In their opinion, these people are incompetent and idiots. Opinion does not for truth make. Although, in some cases, the shoe does fit and the opinion is in fact truth. Does this mean that sharing “opinion” on social media is “verboten?” With this new “policy,” it is when it concerns the city of South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee, officials, city business dealings, and anyone connected with the city who exercises free speech.

And, one must ask, “Why are these people monitoring employees’ social media sites, along with anyone connected with the city?” It must take considerable tax payer-funded time to monitor employees of a town with 3,000 inhabitants. Surely, that time could be better spent. And there must be more pressing “city” business to attend instead of surfing the internet social media sites like Facebook looking for unflattering posts.

It’s social media for goodness sakes, not the New York Times, the Washington Post, or USA Today.

It is my opinion these commissioners and Mayor Jane Dawkins are nothing more than incompetent idiots who do not want their follies exposed, spoken about, or brought to the public light through any media, social or otherwise. And, if I worked for the city of South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee, I would tell them so and to fire me, as I refuse to sign any such agreement. Any government–federal, state, or local–who seeks to limit the free speech of their employees is tyrannical in nature and seeks to serve itself, not those who have created it.

The real question remains, “What are the people of South Pittsburgh City, Tennessee, going to do?”

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