Commission Attorneys Look for Identities Behind Online Comments
(Memphis) Many of you commented on the Commercial Appeal’s website about the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.
Now the Shelby County Commission’s attorneys want the names and information of those who made racially charged comments.
A lawsuit filed by the commission’s attorneys argues the state law allowing for municipal districts was done with racial motivation. That’s a difficult argument, one that Judge Samuel Hardy Mays said had to be proven with evidence.
As one of perhaps several strategies to develop a case, commission attorneys have subpoenaed the identities of the users who posted racially charged comments on Commercial Appeal articles regarding the schools merger.
Commissioner Steve Mulroy explained, “They want to see if there’s an overlap between the people who were contacting Nashville and influencing them to pass these laws, which are the subject of the court suit on the one hand, and the list of people who were making racially charged comments behind the cloak of anonymity.”
Commissioner Terry Rowland put forth a resolution Monday to withdraw the subpoena. After much debate, commissioners voted 5-8 to let the motion for subpoena continue.
“They’re going on a witch hunt here, to see if they can find where somebody might have said something out of context,” Roland said.
He called the attorneys “evil,” and said that this effort constitutes a “war.”
“Where does it end?” he said, “Folks, this is dangerous.”
Mulroy said that their attorneys have drafted an order of protection, that promises the attorneys will be the only ones to see the identities of the users. The users’ identities will never be released to anyone else.
“If there were racially discriminatory comments made at a town hall meeting leading to a public decision, it would clearly be relevant,” Mulroy said. He said the only major difference is that the comments were made anonymously.
“What you say under the cloak of anonymity tends to more likely be what is really in your heart,” he said.
Mulroy, who is a professor of law at the University of Memphis, said the first amendment protects all speech, including anonymous comments. But he said that protection is not unlimited. He said the issue would become moot under the order of protection.
Bruce Kramer is an attorney who specializes in freedom of speech.
He says revealing the names of people who commented anonymously on the website will be a violation of the First Amendment.
“The first amendment protects your right to petition the government. Your first amendment protects the freedom of the press it also protects your right to comment on issues of public importance. That’s what these people did,” Kramer said.
Kramer says laws have been established all over the country based on cases that set a precedent protecting private and anonymous comments on the internet.
John White, a Collierville resident, is looking forward to having a municipal district, not for racial reasons, but because he said, “I don’t think Memphis has a very good track record of running the schools, so we would like to see a separate school district.”
“I think [comments] should be totally anonymous, otherwise people will quit making comments,” White said.
Others said it is more important to root out possible racism in the community. Marcus Murrell from South Memphis attended the commissioner’s meeting on Monday out of curiosity.
It may not be illegal to be racist, but Murrell said you should stand by any comment you make.
“Just come out, this is my name, this is what I said, and I didn’t say anything wrong. And go about your business,” he said. “If something was racist, let’s bring it out so it won’t happen again.”
Attorneys with the Baker-Donelson Law Firm are trying to prove there was an atmosphere of racial hostility when state lawmakers gave the go ahead to pave the way for municipal schools.
The litigation will take place before a federal judge in about a month. There has been no official announcement of whether other media websites would be subpoenaed in a similar fashion.
The attorneys from Baker-Donelson would not comment on this story.