Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chance that it's illegal for you to do so.
Granted, the law making it illegal is itself almost sure to be overturned on constitutional grounds, so if you actually were arrested or prosecuted under this law you could sue, and eventually win, and maybe even have an inspirational cable-TV movie made about your experiences … but this will all take several years, and you'd have a miserable time of it in the meanwhile.
Last week, city commissioners in the Chattanooga suburb of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, voted 4-1 to ban any negative comments about the city or its government on any forms of social media.
The town was, until now, best known as the home of the National Cornbread Festival.
This ban does not apply to everybody in the world, however, only to any of South Pittsburg's elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anybody else associated with the town in any official capacity, all of whom are now forbidden to post anything critical on any blogs, Facebook discussions, Twitter or any other forms of social media.
"Just an industry standard"
The Chattanooga Times Free-Press quoted South Pittsburg City Commissioner Jeff Powers as saying that this ban was necessary because sometimes the commissioners had to spend time discussing negative comments people had made.
“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.”
Every few meetings! Yikes. When the writers of America's Constitution included First Amendment guarantee of free speech (including speech critical of the government), they surely never intended that elected representatives might actually have to address those criticisms or face negative publicity every few meetings or so, right?
However, Powers rejected any accusations that city employees were being banned from social media:
“The first thing everyone wants to say is 'I can't post anything on Facebook.' 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.”
City attorney Billy Gouger agreed with this interpretation, saying that the new policy is not intended to infringe on free-speech rights. “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.”
He didn't mention what those “other rights” are – presumably the “right” for city commissioners to not have to address criticism? Nor does he explain the apparent contradiction of how something specifically designed to “limit your ability to comment or criticize,” as he said, can be construed as anything other than an infringement on free speech.
The city's mayor, Jane Dawkins, also supports the ban, saying it's necessary because “Criticism is one thing … Out-and-out lies and untruths, that's another thing. Those kinds of things are the things that will be directed.” Of course, current free-speech protections already exclude slander and libel, again making South Pittsburg's new law unnecessary.
The one South Pittsburg commissioner who voted against the ban was Paul Don King, who said he could see both sides of the argument but voted against the ban because it infringed on city employees' freedom of speech.
While city employees, vendors, contractors and others might be forbidden to criticize the city or its leaders, the rest of the Internet is not, and naturally responded to the ban on social-media criticism by criticizing the hell out of the city on social media.
Parody Twitter feeds sprang up thanks to anonymous people portraying Mayor Dawkins or Commissioner Powers (who, among other things, decreed that “Any temperature below 0 is henceforth banned. #DownWithNegatives”).
A Facebook page dedicated to the town got lots of new visitors and comments, almost entirely critical of the news story. Some people offered well-meaning and helpful criticism:
Is this the kind of press coverage the city officials want?? We grow from our mistakes and being able to hear the good, not-so-good and the ugly should help us dig deeper to work a workable solution. People can complain but have another idea for a solution.
Meanwhile, other Facebook commenters were more interested in criticizing the city solely for the sake of criticizing it:
“I don't live in Tenn. I live in Arizona. Are they going to ban me from talking about HOW DUMB YOUR LEADERS ARE! Can I say that and what will they do if I say it? Stupid asses.”
Another commenter with possibly shaky math skills posted
“Two words. Streisand Effect. Google it.”
It does seem safe to say – not as criticism, merely as a neutral observation – that perhaps the city government of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, never heard of the “Streisand Effect,” named after famed singer and formerly clueless privacy buff Barbra Streisand.
Know Your Meme defines it as “the unintended consequence of further publicizing information by trying to have it censored. Instead of successfully removing the information from the public, it becomes even more widely available than before as a backlash against the censorship attempt.”
The label first arose in 2003, after a photographer trying to document the rate of coastal beach erosion in California took a series of airborne photos of the coast. Of course, many photos of the California coast also show various structures built on the coast, including a mansion belonging to Streisand.
Streisand, through her lawyers, tried to have those photos containing her mansion removed from the erosion survey, citing her privacy. (For what it's worth, the photo shows a large white mansion atop a sandy bluff leading down to the beach. Nice, and obviously expensive, but there is absolutely nothing about it to indicate who owns it or lives there.)
Streisand's lawsuit gained a lot of media attention, and millions of people who had absolutely no interest in looking at photos documenting California beach erosion were nonetheless very interested in looking at a specific photo which Barbra Streisand deliberately tried to quash.
And until last week, it was safe to say that few people outside of southwestern Tennessee had even heard of the city of South Pittsburg, let alone cared enough to criticize it.
Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chan...