It's not often that I find myself in agreement with Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland. But he got it right this week when he moved to oppose allowing the commission's attorneys in the school merger lawsuit to subpoena The Commercial Appeal for the names of some of its website commenters who made racist remarks.
Roland's motion failed, but the majority (who voted to allow the attorneys to proceed and who are mostly Democrats) have it all sorts of wrong. Commissioner Walter Bailey, who favors the subpoena, called it "good lawyering." Doubtful, but it is stupid politics and lousy public relations.
It's stupid politics, because this move was revealed on the eve of one of the most contentious local elections in memory. Suburban voters are already highly motivated to go out and vote for the right to have their own municipal school systems. The news of this maneuver by the commission only further enflames that motivation and confirms those voters' worst fears: that the proposed all-county school district will be run by old-guard Memphis politicians who think all suburbanites are racists. It also pretty much guarantees that most Democratic candidates for local offices will fall like dominoes. Like I said, stupid.
It's lousy public relations, because it offends people's sense of fair play — and not just Republicans. It feels like an invasion of privacy. Granted, there is no First Amendment right to comment on the CA's website (or the Flyer's, for that matter). It's a privilege given by the publication and one that can be revoked at any time. Nor are commenters "protected sources," as some have claimed. No reporter asked them to comment or guaranteed their right to anonymity.
That said, a publication would be foolish to give up the names of its commenters without a very compelling reason. It's one thing for, say, the district attorney to request the identity of a commenter they suspect of being a rapist or murderer, quite another for government attorneys in a lawsuit to muck around in thousands of comments to see who made racial remarks. That is government meddling of a high order.
And if this is the kind of "evidence" the commission's attorneys are reduced to seeking in order to make their case that the Norris-Todd legislation was created to further racial segregation, that case looks weak, indeed. I hope the CA fights this subpoena tooth and nail. And if the commission's attorneys come knocking over here in Flyer-land, we'll do the same.