Will New Bill Deal Blow To Racism, Or Just Settle Scores?

Jan 14, 2020

At Pittsburgh City Council's first full meeting Tuesday, Distict 9 City Councilor Ricky Burgess offered a bill that may either advance an anti-racist agenda for the future — or settle some old political scores. 

Burgess introduced legislation that would amend the city's code of conduct to expressly bar "hateful activities" by city officials and employees.

"I believe there's no place for hateful activities," Burgess said. "There's no place for libel and slander and defamation of people."

The amendment bans public officials and city employees from "engaging in hateful activities toward each other," or encouraging others to engage in "hateful activities." It also bars them from posting online about others in "hateful" way.  The amendment defines "hateful activities" to include any actions "that incite or engage in violence, intimidation, harassment, threats, or defamation targeting an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability."  

Under the bill, a city employee who feels targeted by can file a report with the city's Ethics Hearing Board. The board could conduct an investigation and recommend discipline.

Burgess characterized the bill as an effort to "dismantle structural and institutitional racism." But he gave a notable example of the kind of behavior the bill would stop: 

"Let's assume that an African American, maybe a member of council, wanted to progress in some way," he told reporters. "Let's just say another member of council or a member of council staff decided to slander, defame that person through an unproven whisper campaign. They would engage in cyber-lynching, nasty activities, unsubstantiated rumors; and there would be no consequence to that. To me that kind of behavior is unacceptable." 

Burgess said that was a hypothetical scenario. But prior to last week's vote to select a council president, both he and Corey O'Connor, who was also vying for the seat, privately complained of being targeted by rumors circulated by opponents. Behind the scenes the process of choosing a president is often contentious, and neither man secured the presidency: Theresa Kail-Smith emerged as a consensus choice.  

Shortly before that vote took place, Burgess gave a speech in which he decried the fact that "small-minded people talk about you. ... Even sometimes people in city hall." 

Sara Rose, senior staff attorney with ACLU Pennsylvania, said the bill could pass constitutional muster because it applies only to city employees and officials. 

"There's a different First Amendment standard that applies to government employees than applies to people at large," Rose said. "To the extent that this only applies to people while they're at work, there's probably no issue at all." 

However, she said if someone were to lose their job because of the rule, a lawsuit would not be surprising.

"An employer [could] find out that an employee said something on Facebook and then it leads to discipline and the rationale is that it violates the policy," Rose said. "Then the way it makes its way to court is the employee sues and asks the court to see if it violates their First Amendment right." 

Burgess said he plans to hold a public hearing on the bill, but no date has been set yet.