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Free speech and the Peachtree City fiasco

Jack Bernard, a retired SVP with a large national healthcare firm, has worked extensively with hospitals across the nation regarding cost containment and insurance. He was also the first Director of Health Planning for Georgia.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – Constitution, First Amendment

Since I was on the Peachtree City (PTC) Zoning Commission, I know all of the City Council members. Although there are positives and negatives for each individual, as far as I can make out, all of them believe that they are public servants. That is why I find it so odd that they would ever even consider a resolution to stifle free speech, a protected right under our Constitution.
Interestingly enough, I was contacted by friends who are both Tea Party types and liberals before the City Council meeting on Thursday, April 18. Despite their differences, they were all outraged by what they thought was an obvious attempt by a governmental body to prevent the public from being heard.
As a former Chairman of a County Commission in another county, I understand the frustration of public servants who serve for little pay and are constantly berated by out of control malicious gad flies. Before I was on that County Commission, tax increases averaged 10 percent a year. After I became Chair, increases went down to 1 percent annually, below the rate of inflation.
Nevertheless, the local Tea Party type group constantly and personally berated me in their online newsletter, often conveying factually incorrect information. They wanted more and more of me, having little understanding of the fact that it takes three votes to pass anything on a five-vote body. It was both infuriating and frustrating.
However, instead of trying to pass clearly unconstitutional resolutions restricting their speech and threatening them with county financed law suits, I simply got a weekly column in the local paper. And, when that paper no longer would print my column, I went online with a newsletter reaching 1000+ households.
My advice to the City Council is to endeavor to communicate more effectively. For example, let’s take the City Center concept as applied to PTC, which currently consists of six villages.
I have not spoken to anyone in PTC who is in favor of the creation of the City Center in the Aberdeen Shopping Center, especially when the addition of 200 apartments is factored into the project. Yet, without having done any surveying as to the feelings of PTC citizens, the entire PTC City Council was clearly pushing the project.
Knowing the Council, I personally don’t believe that any of them were getting any sort of kickbacks, but it is understandable that frustrated, alienated taxpayers would go online and accuse them of this and more due to a lack of understanding as to their more altruistic (though misguided) motivations. This may be why they overreacted and tried to shut down social media and press condemnations of their actions.
As the ACLU Director of Legal Services said at the meeting, it’s the perception that the City Council wants to unconstitutionally silence its critics. That may not be the reality, but with each Councilperson and the City Manager denying that they were the one putting this item on the agenda, they all look like President Trump on a bad day (or maybe a good one in his case).

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