On the Saturday before the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, one of Gwinnett County, GA’s top elected officials went on Facebook to call U.S. Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis “a racist pig.” In the post, County Commissioner Tommy Hunter also referred to Democrats as “Demonrats” and “a bunch of idiots.”
Hunter’s Facebook post came amid conflict between president-elect Donald Trump and John Lewis over Lewis’s comments that he doesn’t view Trump as a legitimate President and will not attend the January 20th inauguration. Trump responded by tweeting that Lewis was “all talk,” and referring to the district Lewis represents – which includes most of the city of Atlanta – as “in terrible shape and falling apart.” Most residents of the Atlanta metro area were swift to condemn Trump’s remarks about both Lewis and their city:
John Lewis has represented most of the city of Atlanta in Congress for the past 30 years, after becoming a hero of the Civil Rights movement and a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis was instrumental in the desegregation and civil rights movements, often facing violence while playing key leadership roles in the 1963 March on Washington and voter registration efforts in Selma, Alabama.
Despite Lewis’s storied and widely respected tenure as a public servant, Tommy Hunter apparently sees only a “racist pig.” Tommy Hunter has been a member of the County Commission of Gwinnett County, Georgia (part of the Atlanta metro area along with John Lewis’s Congressional district) since 2012, and narrowly won re-election in 2016. Gwinnett County is home to over 850,000 Georgians, making it the second most populous county in the state, and went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Gwinnett is also a “majority-minority” county, meaning more than half its population is made up of non-whites.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that when reached for comment, Hunter said his “racist pig” insult was “probably an overreaction out of aggravation,” but did not back down from the rest of his statements.
Tommy Hunter (and others) will likely use one of two approaches to defend his statements. First, they will bemoan “political correctness,” saying that people offended by Hunter’s insults are “snowflakes” who need a “safe space” to protect them from harmful words. Indeed, Tommy Hunter posted a meme on his page that included the message, “If you’re easily offended and looking for a ‘safe place’ my page ain’t it.. Move along snowflake.” As usual, this completely misses the point. It isn’t about being offended. Tommy Hunter is an elected official whose job is to represent the interests of 850,000 Georgians, most of whom are non-white. His crass public insults toward a Georgia congressman aren’t making anyone cry or run for a safe space; they merely show that he is unfit to represent Gwinnett County as a Commissioner. An elected representative should always be above emotional outbursts that denigrate others. Hunter’s inability to control his emotions, his lack of civility in public discourse, and his espousing of views that do not reflect his constituents’ mean that for the good of Gwinnett County, he should step down or be removed.
The second approach that Hunter’s defenders will likely use to justify his statements is that he was exercising his right to free speech. On this count, they’re absolutely right – the Constitutional right to free speech protects citizens from government retaliation in response to protected speech. So if Tommy Hunter is arrested or indicted by government forces for what he said, it would be completely unconstitutional. However – and most people get this wrong – freedom of speech does not protect Tommy Hunter from the consequences of his behavior. If the Gwinnett County Commission receives phone calls, emails, or visits in protest, Tommy Hunter’s right to free speech has not been violated. If his statements about John Lewis go viral on social media and are widely condemned, Tommy Hunter’s right to free speech has not been violated. If public dissatisfaction with his unprofessional behavior leads to his resignation or removal, Tommy Hunter’s right to free speech has not been violated.
No reasonable person would suggest that Tommy Hunter should be prevented from exercising his right to free speech in the manner that he did on Saturday. He is allowed by law to speak his mind. On the other side of that coin, everyone else is allowed to speak their minds in response. If you feel the need to speak your mind on this issue, here is current contact information for the Gwinnett County Commission and its members:
Address: 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville, GA 30046
Gwinnett County Commission Members:
Charlotte J. Nash (R)
Jace Brooks (R)
Lynette Howard (R), up for re-election 2018
John Heard (R), up for re-election 2018
Tommy Hunter (R)