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Lakeland board to seek legal advice on free speech vs. libel

Lakeland logo copyThe Aug. 3 work session for Lakeland’s city board ended on a jarring note that continues to play out in contentious social media posts. The topic was defamation of board members’ characters on social media.

Vice Mayor Josh Roman said the board gets frustrated when they believe people are trying to undermine the progress of the city — and he clarified that he means not just elected officials but “the city as a whole.” He said there’s nothing wrong with people speaking their minds, but he wants to open discussion about getting legal advice on where free speech crosses the line into defamation of character.

Commissioner Matt Wright agreed on bringing someone in for advice. His example of potentially defaming public commentary was an allegation on social media that he creates fake accounts and posts on Facebook with those accounts. He said the statement came from a Lakeland resident who’s “very much opposed to what we’re doing here in Lakeland.”

He emphasized, “I have no idea who this person is — who the fake accounts are. I know it’s not me.”

He said that one such individual posted during the last special election that a commissioner has a problem with booze and hookers. “Well, do you want your kids to see that?”

Wright said he gets frustrated when other parents ask him if he’s seen such posts.

“At some point, I want to know what are my legal rights — if I have no legal rights as a politician and we have no way to defend ourselves as a city against essentially slanderous attacks,” Wright said. “Then why are we even up here? I mean, literally if there’s no way to try to defend your character against people that are making up lies.”

He questioned how to handle this and said he wants legal advice on what the city board can do to defend the reputation of board members and the city itself.

“This doesn’t just harm us, guys, personally,” Wright said. “This harms the reputation of Lakeland. And don’t be deceived — it’s done damage.”

Commissioner Wesley Wright said it’s one thing when people have a spirited conversation online, but it’s something else when people speak in defamatory terms that can affect the personal and professional reputations of the board. He also said it’s a lot of the same people starting these toxic conversations.

Matt Wright said that another issue is how such people allegedly post online, telling others, “You don’t want to move to Lakeland because here’s how the elected officials run the city.” He added, “It harms us as a city.”

Roman indicated that the next step is to have a staff directive rather than an official city resolution, seeking advice from an expert in the field of defamation.

In other business, the board discussed rezoning a parcel from AG (agriculture) to R1 (suburban estate). Jared and Mary Welch own Parcel ID L0150 00351, and they want to rezone ones portion to R1. They plan to subdivide the parent tract, sell off approximately two acres this property and later build a house on the remaining property. The public hearing and final reading will be Aug. 10.

The board also wants to amend some of the city’s land development regulations. The change would clarify language requiring letters of compliance regarding lighting and landscaping installations and regulating the width of residential driveways. The first reading of a proposed ordinance on this topic will be Aug. 10.

The first reading of another new ordinance will be on Aug. 10, with the purpose of regulating overgrown and dirty lots in Lakeland.

Other items expected to be on the agenda for the next city board meeting include:

  • The Small Area Plan developed in concert with Looney Ricks Kiss
  • The purchase of a bypass pump from Xylem Inc.
  • An athletic complex
  • The establishment of a municipal court

CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to carolyn.bahm@journalinc.com.

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