Free speech wins the night in Peachtree City

17
4555
The Peachtree City Council April 18 with the public comment timer running on the screen behind them. Photo/Cal Beverly.
The Peachtree City Council April 18 with the public comment timer running on the screen behind them. Photo/Cal Beverly.

Faced with a sometimes angry standing-room-only crowd, a defensive but ultimately chastened City Council voted 5-0 Thursday night to bury a resolution that would have authorized the city to pay for lawsuits by city officials against citizens accused of defaming them in social and other media. [Watch The Citizen’s Facebook Live video, beginning at the 1:44:06 mark.] — 

After being forced to wait their turn through nearly two hours of routine Peachtree City Council business, dozens of citizens — many standing against the walls of council chambers — exercised their First Amendment rights to demand that a sometimes stony-faced mayor and council reject a resolution that would have the city paying for defamation lawsuits against its own citizens.

Those lined up in passionate favor of free speech ranged from a 12-year-old Booth Middle School girl to a man whose voice had been taken by cancer, from a Vietnam War veteran and four-decade resident of Peachtree City to an AP Government McIntosh High School student, from people in suits to people in shorts, in voices that roared and voices that shook, in tones that pleaded and words that drew cheers.

By night’s end more than 30 multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-political speakers had decried the agenda item whose authorship was denied by council members and whose purpose was defended by Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and Councilman Mike King as an attempt to “protect” volunteers and rank and file city workers from harsh social media words that falsely accused them of crimes.

Speaker after speaker reminded the council that it was taxpayer money being deployed against words, not actions, and most urged the allegedly defamed city officials to use their own money to defend their individual honor, not taxpayers’ money.

Interviewed after the unanimous vote to deny the expanded indemnification resolution, Mayor Fleisch said to a Fox5 TV reporter that the idea of city-funded lawsuits was dead, never to be considered by them again.

No apologies from the mayor or the city manager, Jon Rorie, both of whom had just the day before in separate television interviews defended the need for the lawsuit power against citizens.

Instead, Fleisch, King and others blamed the controversy on their inattention to what was being placed on the council’s Thursday night agenda and pledged to pay more attention in the future. Several citizens demanded to know whose idea it was to vote on the resolution, but no one claimed credit for the resolution’s origin. In addition, King raised a complaint against an unnamed local newspaper editor for reporting only part of the story in recent days, rather than the whole story.

After the crowd cleared out of the chamber to make room for a closed-to-the-public executive session, the council voted to pay for and mount a joint legal defense with the Peachtree City Water and Sewer Authority against a city resident who had accused them of conducting an illegal meeting.

[CLARIFICATION added 4 p.m. April 19] The city and WASA’s action is in response to an open meetings lawsuit filed against the two boards earlier this year by John Dufresne, who was the volunteer WASA board chairman until last summer. Dufresne filed the original legal action against them in March of this year.

Acting under the authority of local legislation, the council members in 2018 became the WASA board members in addition to their legally separate council positions, and removed the WASA volunteers from their unpaid positions.

Neither WASA nor the council filed the original lawsuit against Dufresne, but both WASA and the council — as defendants in the lawsuit filed by Dufresne — are asking the judge in the case to rule against Dufresne and to order Dufresne to pay the legal costs incurred by the city and WASA in defending against Dufresne’s lawsuit.

17 COMMENTS

  1. You are right, RWM. The city manager’s job is to carry out the rules that the city council has in place. He is not part of the council and should not have a say in what comes before the commission.

    And why are we paying a city attorney? To have someone from the American Civil Liberties Union come in to explain why this is a very bad idea is a shame.

  2. This is not a Free Speech issue. You can express whatever opinion you want and disagree with any decision or opinion voiced by any other person. That is your right.

    Defaming, libeling and baselessly accusing someone of a crime are NOT free speech and are actionable. If the person being harmed is acting as a functionary of the City then the City should help that person against actionable slander or lies.

    I don’t understand why the anonymity of social media makes people feel that they have the right to say anything they want, true or not, libelous or not, with a complete lack of accountability.

    • “I don’t understand why the anonymity of social media makes people feel that they have the right to say anything they want”, says the guy posting under a pseudonym.

      The issue in question here is not whether people should be held accountable for defamatory speech. It’s whether a government can arbitrarily favor one class of individuals over another and provide tax-payer funded financial incentives for people to make claims in court against the citizens they serve.

      • Please re-read my comments. If the person being slandered, libeled or lied about is acting in some capacity for the city and it’s their service to the city that’s leading to those comments, then the city should share in the defense against those comments.

        If not, then NO citizen is going to offer their time in service to the city in any capacity. Why bother?

        • You’re stunningly tone deaf on this issue, so I’ll parrot your own words: Please re-read my comments.

          And let’s not pretend that there is, in fact, any substance to the predicate that somehow people are being subjected to libel and slander in any legally meaningful way. Those in authority by virtue of election or appointment are subject to a higher level of criticism when they act improperly. And they should not have the treasury of the city itself at their disposal in silencing those critics.

          • Again, you seem to pick and choose what you want to hear. The relevant part of my original comment was this;

            “Defaming, libeling and baselessly accusing someone of a crime are NOT free speech and are actionable. ”

            Why is everyone ignoring that?

            Also, why are you making this into a personal attack? Once we lose the ability to discuss differing points of view we cease to function as a society.

            Your civil, productive comments are certainly welcome.

  3. Do you see why term limits are a good idea?

    Mike and Vanessa are in their second and last term and somehow they can defend this horrible idea? Are you serious? I think they are way over the top and can only imagine what they would come up with in a third term. Thank goodness the Great Wolf has moved on to happier hunting grounds.

    If this was motivated by the city’s fear of John D and his latest windmill tilting effort, I am even more appalled.

    I do think the mayor (this one or the next one) should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate this abuse of power or collusion to commit a crime against the first amendment or something. Any ideas who should be appointed?

  4. The fact that this resolution was considered for even 5 seconds speaks volumes for the tyranny of the powerful against their constituents. The fact that a veteran supported the resolution demonstrates how little he comprehends the Constitution he once defended with his life.

    Truth is always stranger than fiction!

      • Speaking of cost, when making a list of things that cost the city some of its well-deserved positive image, count today’s AJC first page Metro section coverage of the meeting by Bill Torpy. Obviously following up on the Neal Boortz ridicule from early last week, Torpy attended the meeting and actually interviewed people. Overall we looked pretty good regarding city participation in government and we looked pretty bad regarding city leadership. Mayor Vanessa took a big (and possibly well-deserved) hit.

        While Torpy dis was mostly good journalism, he did fall into the Steve Brown magical mystery tour of his political career where he actually said he would bankrupt his family over a $10,000 legal fee. I would have thought marriage to a doctor insulated him somewhat, but who knows.

        I really fault the city manager for encouraging this nonsense when instead he should be the calming influence over emotional elected egos. And the city attorney – come on guy – explain the law to these people before they embarrass themselves and ultimately the entire city.

        • Ted is a smart guy-who serves at the pleasure of the council. He’ll always answer questions, but also operates within his role. He does stand up to council sometimes. Usually, it won’t be in front of the public. I’ve seen him stand up and tell a former and the current mayor when she was on council. Ted is not the problem here. The council is.

          • Of course council is the problem, George. Some of these people get elected and after orientation they choose the public servant path and sincerely try to fix problems. Others get elected and actually believe that their IQ just went up 30 points and smugly go through the orientation dreaming about their personal agenda.

            Challenge someone in the first group and they will meet with you and discuss Challenge someone in the second group and they will demonize you and double down on whatever issue they have embraced. If voters were smart enough to know this, we would not have elected Brown or Haddix.

            Since voters are not smart at all, city manager should just stay in his lane and manage the city and city attorney should pull out all the stops to shut down the ego-driven and possibly illegal bad ideas. Yes, Ted is a smart guy. Now Ted needs to be both smart and aggressive in protecting council from themselves. By doing that he is also protecting the taxpayers from legal consequences.

          • Robert, you nailed it with your assessment of the councils inflated sense of self importance and over estimation of their own capability. John is a capable project manager, but I’m not sure he will tell them if they are wrong. He wants to please, to badly. At least when I was there. He doesn’t like to upset the apple cart.