Tennessee Town Bans Negative Online Comments, Gets Trolled by Reddit

Photographer: Gallery Stock

The town of South Pittsburg, Tenn., has just passed the best social media policy ever. At least, that’s what certain people have to say—because South Pittsburg has barred them from criticizing the town on social media.

The town of 3,000 people, just west of Chattanooga, passed a resolution on Dec. 9 that applies to anyone professionally connected to South Pittsburg—including employees, volunteers, and contractors—from “publicly discuss[ing] information about other employees and/or volunteers not approved for public communication” on social media, according to the official resolution. It also warns against writing anything on a personal Facebook page or on Twitter that might be considered defamatory or libelous.  People “should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever,” the policy states.

“The first thing everyone wants to say is, ‘I can’t post anything on Facebook,’” the town’s commissioner, Jeff Powers, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board, or things of that nature.”

“It is not a new concept,” South Pittsburg Mayor Jane Dawkins wrote in a Facebook message to Bloomberg Businessweek. Dawkins said the policy was mostly designed to stop people from posting employees’ salary information or police officers’ schedules on Facebook. “This lets people know that the officer’s spouse and children are home alone or that no one is at home,” she explained. (The South Pittsburg Police Department doesn’t appear to have much of a Facebook page, and it’s unclear if officers’ schedules have ever been posted online.) She also said that while she voted for the policy, “I did not commission this. Commissioner Jeff Powers did.” Powers did not respond to an interview request.

Not to sound negative, but there might be a problem with South Pittsburg’s new policy. The First Amendment protects free speech, especially free speech that criticizes the government. “This policy is dangerously broad,” said Helen Norton, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law who studies free speech as it applies to government workers. “It’d be one thing if it were just about job-required speech,” she said, noting that, for example, press secretaries can be fired if they say something in their official role that an administration doesn’t like. “But once you get into speech outside of the job and on private social media accounts, it’s not that simple.” Norton says that South Pittsburg’s city council could easily stop relevant parties from calling them names or launching personal insults. But if someone wanted to raise questions about the legality or necessity of their new policy, or criticize the town’s government in any meaningful way, that kind of criticism would be protected whether it had been “approved for public consumption” or not.

South Pittsburg doesn’t appear to have adopted its new policy in response to something negative that was written or said about the town online. Sure, a police officer was fired after he arrested the city administrator for reckless driving—an administrator on the commission that voted for the policy—but that was last year. And yes, the town was briefly derided when it considered outlawing saggy pants, but that was back in August. Residents say they’re unaware of any recent scandal that might have spurred the town’s council to action.

“This is a small town, and if something happened recently, I know my husband or I would’ve heard about it. But I don’t think we’ve had any scandals recently,” said Kelly Coffman, 33, who has lived in South Pittsburg for the past two years. “All I can think of is we have a cast iron and cornbread festival in April. Maybe they want to make sure nice things are said about that?”

Ironically, South Pittsburg has created more negative publicity in adopting this resolution than it ever had before. On a Facebook page dedicated to the town, residents (who presumably aren’t employed by the town) are reacting with confusion and outrage. “Is this the kind of press coverage the city officials want?” asked Sheila Stone Nelson. “Borders on censorship to me,” commented Jessica Graves.

Other people have jumped on the issue too. Within days of the resolution’s passing, several Reddit users created parody Twitter accounts for Dawkins and Powers from which they proceeded to tweet faux-positive comments such as, “rumors of an underground goat sex ring comprised of its elected officials … are exaggerated” or “Any temperature below 0 is henceforth banned. #DownWithNegatives.”

“I have never been to South Pittsburg, never even been to Tennessee,” Alex, the Reddit user behind the @NotJaneDawkins account, wrote to Bloomberg Businessweek in an e-mail. “My reason for involving myself is that I work in government and am tired of seeing [the] government disappoint.”

South Pittsburg isn’t the first to try to squash bad publicity only to cause even more. Earlier this year, a hotel in England fined a guest £100 for leaving a one-star review on TripAdvisor. The review was picked up by the BBC, so the reviewer’s assertion that the hotel was nothing more than a “dirty rotten stinking hovel run by Muppets” was seen by more people than it would’ve been otherwise. And last year, a vacation rental company removed its threats to fine negative reviewers $10,000 after CNN reported on it.

“All of this is just ridiculous,” said Coffman. “It seems like a waste of time. You can’t control what people say.”

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