Peachtree City residents Thursday night stormed City Council chambers with the fervor of French Revolutionaries at the Bastille and got the City Council to back off a proposal that had ignited a firestorm across the usually mild-mannered citizenry.
Each year, the City Council adopts a policy that defends and pays judgments for acts or omissions performed or neglected to be performed in their association with the city. This year’s revision provided coverage if a city official has been defamed in a public media outlet, including social media.
Additionally, the revision allowed the city to seek reimbursement for costs in the successful pursuit of a defamation ruling from the party or parties committing the defamation.
Mayor Vanessa Fleisch offered a hypothetical example of a volunteer fireman going to a resident’s house to change a smoke alarm battery. Subsequently, a necklace was discovered missing and a relative in another state went on Facebook to defame the firefighter as a thief. Subsequently, the necklace was found in another part of the house, but the defamation remained on social media.
But Thursday’s fired up crowd, that at times resembled a contemporary political rally, was having none of the explanations offered by the city’s staff.
The first speaker was Sean Young of the ACLU, who was hissed and heckled before he started speaking, but when he started talking, the crowd quickly rallied in his support.
“This resolution intimidates ordinary citizens from criticizing,” he said to a loud round of applause from the crowd.
For nearly an hour, the City Council listened to a wide range of citizens expressing varying degrees of moral outrage, and sometimes outright anger, against the proposed policy change.
Bobby Rouse, who represented Americans for Prosperity, said his group represents encouraging civic discourse.
“This allows for public leaders to threaten lawsuits against citizens,” he said.
Olivia Cleveland, a 12-year-old Booth Middle School student, also weighed in on the issue. She said social media today is the way people communicate and allows people to express their opinions.
Lifelong Peachtree City resident Jerry Crozier let the City Council know exactly where he stood on the issue.
“I’ll be the first one to step up and be sued if you are stupid enough to do this,” he said.
One of the most poignant moments of the meeting came from veteran Nathan Watts, who is physically unable to speak, but had other people read his words.
Because of all the controversy engendered, Watts said the City Council had made a grave mistake.
“No matter how you vote tonight, you’re going to lose.”
Later, another speaker read Watts’ sentiments.
“I have cancer. This means I have nothing to lose. If you want something posted, send it to me. I won’t vet it, no matter how outlandish it is,” Watts said to a standing ovation.
City Councilman Mike King summed up his feelings after the public comments.
“I’ve seen what has happened. If a police sergeant is defamed, I’ll put it on my dime. That’s how much I care about this damn city,” King said.
King also took to task a local newspaper editor who King claimed for the last three months has not printed the whole truth about issues facing the city.
He added the City Council had learned a serious lesson and the City Council voted 5-0 to not approve the revised policy.
The large crowd cheered and applauded as they left City Hall late Thursday.