ACLU of Georgia

Torpy at Large: How Free Speakers Killed a Plan to Quell Free Speech

By Bill Torpy | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | April 22, 2019

As bad ideas go, this one was a Peach.
Last week, Peachtree City council members considered a resolution to reach into taxpayers’ pockets so they could sue those same bothersome taxpayers.
The effort first surfaced in The Citizen, the local Fayette County newspaper that often gets crosswise with that august board and was, in fact, once sued by a former city attorney.
“Say bad stuff about Peachtree City officials and get sued — by the city government itself?” read the headline.
The legislation would have allowed city employees and elected officials to sue residents who subject them to “unwarranted public defamation” (as opposed to warranted defamation). But the key here was the city would pick up the legal tab.
The source of this is not quite certain. City Manager Jon Rorie told The Citizen that unhappy locals were abusing the system to utter untruths against officials in ethics complaints. But the resolution could be used to go after defamers on any media, whether it be in newspapers, TV or social media.
“It’s a brave, new world,” Rorie told the paper. “It’s not about people criticizing. It’s about being defamed.”
Word got out and Thursday night brought a standing-room-only crowd of unhappy taxpayers to Peachtree City’s City Hall. Walking in, I overheard an undertone of anger. One lady spoke to another, “I don’t know anyone who supports this.” The man behind me muttered, “Like Harry Truman said, if you can’t stand the heat …”
I must say, it was inspiring to see Peachtree City people drop their TV remotes and motor their golf carts down to the government complex to utter truth to power.
The five City Council members gazed out at the crowd like they were contemplating a firing squad. Mayor Vanessa Fleisch gave a rambling discourse, apparently explaining how the resolution came to be. She talked about how some hypothetical volunteer firemen or city advisory board members might do their job but then get slandered or libeled.
For a moment I thought the crowd had eaten some bad chili and were experiencing communal heartburn. But, no, they were groaning at Fleisch’s explanation.
Then it was time for public discourse. First up was Sean Young, a fellow from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The crowd, largely conservative, started to grumble and boo as though a wrestling heel had just climbed into the ring.
“What this resolution does,” Young told the mayor, “is intimidate ordinary citizens from criticizing …”
The rest of his statement was drowned out by loud cheers from the now-appreciative crowd. I thought they’d carry him off on their shoulders like he was Rudy in that football movie.
The mayor asked who else wanted to speak. At least 25 arms shot into the air. At 2 minutes per speech, the clerk set the clock for an hour of public harangue, lecture and elocution.
Among the early speakers was 12-year-old Olivia Cleveland, whose civics class lessons are still fresh in her mind.

“By putting yourself in a public position, you’re opening up yourself to people’s opinions and thoughts, whether you want to hear them or not,” she said.

Daniel Stewart, a 25-year resident wearing a veterans baseball cap, told the city manager — and the City Council as a whole — “to suck it up and listen.”

“When you propose something outrageous, be prepared for outrage,” he said.

Stewart labeled the measure an “Orwellian-style power grab” and urged the council to “abandon this before it becomes more toxic than it is.”

David Richardson said he was “dismayed and embarrassed” that the city he has called home for 30 years is now being ridiculed in the Atlanta media “for doing something as ill-conceived as this.”

Nathan Watts, who cannot speak, had a woman in the crowd read his statement: “I have cancer, that means I have nothing to lose,” Watts’ designate read aloud, choking up. “If you want something posted, send it to me.”

And so it went.

I can’t get into everything uttered, so I circled some words in my notes: Fools. Fascism! Beyond comprehension. Nonsense. Monumentally bad idea. Stunning. Bizarre. Snowflakes.

Resident Steve Brown reminded the council that the former city attorney sued him for libel in 2000 after Brown wrote two letters to the editor in The Citizen. Brown’s letters pointed out that the attorney’s financial involvement with a local bank, whose investors included some big local developers, might be a conflict of interest.

Brown said he spent almost $10,000 defending himself before the lawsuit was dropped.

“I was going to bankrupt my family to point out corruption,” said Brown, who a year later ran for mayor and won.

That lawsuit was also aimed at Cal Beverly, who has run The Citizen for decades. The suit was filed by the former city attorney personally, not by the city, but the lawyer had his own firm pushing the litigation.

“It sure felt like the city was suing us,” said Beverly, adding, “That’s a danger of the government coming after you. They don’t have to prevail. They can cause you to spend all kinds of money. And they have unlimited resources.”

Video can be found by clicking this image to go to the original article. People in Peachtree City may need to watch what they say on social media. The City Council is fighting back against angry comments.

After an hour of public comment, council members were quick to unbuckle themselves from this stinker.

Councilman Mike King said the plan was a bad idea, adding, “Tonight we learned a big lesson.”

Councilman Terry Ernst choked up, saying, “All you have is your integrity. I don’t care to have my integrity challenged.”

No one, however, would own up to who cooked up the idea.

After the meeting, residents had cooled off and walked up to exchange pleasantries with council members. The crowd drifted away and the council went back into executive session.

According to The Citizen, 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.”

The resident filed a suit against the city and the council wants the judge to make the resident pay its legal costs.

Peachtree City Council voting.