Shelby County, Tenn., Rejects Proposed Social Media Policy After KKK Post

A former Shelby County Official recently posted on Facebook that the Ku Klux Klan was "more American" than "illegal" President Barack Obama.

by Ryan Poe, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. / February 21, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- The Shelby County Commission on Monday rejected a new social media policy proposed after a then-official with the county Corrections Division said the Ku Klux Klan was "more American" than "illegal" President Barack Obama in a Facebook post.

The Board of Commissioners voted 6-4 for the policy, short of the seven votes needed for approval, following an impassioned defense of free speech by Commissioner Walter Bailey Jr. What people post on their own time and social media accounts should be up to them, Bailey said, even if he disagreed with them, as in the case of former Corrections Division Deputy Director David Barber, who resigned after the controversy in November 2016.

"That's my time. That's my freedom. That's what this country is about," Bailey said.

The county already has policies in place that forbid derogatory comments and discrimination, which county officials said would apply to social media even if the new policy wasn't approved.

Joining Bailey in opposing the policy were Terry Roland, Steve Basar and chairman Melvin Burgess. Commissioners Heidi Shafer, David Reaves, Willie Brooks Jr., Mark Billingsley, Reginald Milton and Van Turner voted for the policy. Commissioner Eddie Jones Jr. abstained, and Justin Ford left the room prior to the vote.

The amended version of the policy would have required the employees of the county, like at most major private companies, to abstain from social media posts that "unlawfully disparage" or "malign" people based on "race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin or any other protected class of individuals."

Bailey, an attorney who successfully litigated several landmark civil rights cases, said the policy was First Amendment lawsuit waiting to happen.

"I wouldn't be loathe to take the case at all," he said. "I would jump on it."

The discussion heated up when Roland, in making a point about commissioners not wanting to be judged for personal statements, said Billingsley didn't want Cary Vaughn, who heads a local Christian ministries group, to become chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party because Vaughn was "too Baptist." Billingsley called that an "absolute lie" and an "inappropriate" remark.

Billingsley went on to say a good policy was the "first line of defense" for the county to protect its reputation and values when employees act out on social media.

"We're not asking to tell our employees what to say or not to say," he said. "...We are not going to be the first government to have a social media policy."

Jones said he was uncomfortable with the policy's "gray areas."

©2017 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.