UPDATE: Paint Rock’s mayor has decided to follow the law, and this week’s City Council meeting was open to all, according to the local paper. So I’m not sending someone to rural Alabama with a cool T-shirt. Is it wrong that I’m kind of depressed about that?
WANTED: A reporter to cover just one city council meeting in Paint Rock, Alabama. I’ll pay your airfare, rental car, hotel room – and your bail.
Paint Rock (population: 210) is a speck of a town in Alabama’s northeast corner. It’s a 30-minute drive to Tennessee and an hour to Georgia.
Like a lot of small towns, it’s run by small minds. Last week, the city council passed some new rules that China would recognize and Venezuela would applaud…
1. If you don’t live in Paint Rock, you can’t attend any city meetings: “Anyone not residing in the town limits, or anyone not owning property within the town limits will not be permitted without prior approval of the council.”
2. Reporters need permission: “Members of the media, i.e.: newspaper, television, radio, etc. will not be allowed without prior approval from the council majority. When asking for approval, you must present a valid reason/justification for the media to attend.”
3. No one can record anything: “Recording of any meeting of the town council is not permitted.”
4. Can’t share public documents, either: “Posting of any Town minutes, email to council members, financial statements, etc., to ANY unauthorized media source is strictly forbidden.”
I learned about this amusing situation – and keep reading for how we’ll make it hilarious – from the local newspaper, the Jackson County Sentinel. My favorite line…
The town clerk said she thought the mayor had consulted the Alabama League of Municipalities about the guidelines.
…but the mayor isn’t saying. So obviously, Paint Rock leaders gave this a lot of thought beforehand.
This morning and afternoon, I called Mayor Brenda Fisk to ask if she believes her new rules are legal. I couldn’t reach her at the only number I could find. Paint Rock doesn’t have a city website, and Fisk is a shadow on the Internet. (Her sparse Facebook page reveals little besides a love of Nickelback.)
Since Fisk obviously didn’t consult a lawyer, I did…
“Some kind of prank”
Actually, I could’ve consulted a law student for this one. Instead, I went to Frank LoMonte, a nationally recognized media attorney who’s fought some bizarre censorship schemes over the past decade.
Now the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, LoMonte has never seen anything like this.
“I assume this is some kind of prank, and Ashton Kutcher is going to jump out with a camera crew any minute,” he told me last night. “No city could seriously propose a policy so outlandishly contrary to state law.”
That state law would be the Alabama Open Meetings Act. It pretty much does what the title says. But Paint Rock’s rules are so stupid…
It’s not only a violation of state law, but almost certainly a violation of the Constitution, to selectively exclude journalists from meetings if they fail to provide a justification for attending that the government finds, quote-unquote, “valid.”
LoMonte says Paint Rock could easily be sued.
“If you hired somebody to draft you a policy with the express purpose of getting sued for breaking the law, you’d owe the guy a bonus for this beauty,” he says. “Whenever people start getting cute and trying to put their own exceptions into statutes, you wonder if they missed the day in civics class where they teach you that laws are mandatory.”
But I don’t want to sue Paint Rock. That takes time, and it’s boring. I want to have fun now. So…
Go to jail for free
Are you a bold college journalist looking to spice up your summer break? Are you a bored unemployed journalist looking to rejuvenate your resume?
I’ll pay your way to Paint Rock if you’ll piss off the City Council – simply by showing up. Works like this…
1. Fly into Nashville or Birmingham. Rent a car and head to Paint Rock. It’s a scenic two-hour drive from either airport.
2. Stay in any hotel in Jackson County. My sources say there are some really quaint ones.
3. Attend a City Council meeting wearing a T-shirt I’ll give you. It says UNAPPROVED REPORTER and has the logo for the Society of Professional Journalists. (I’m SPJ’s longest-serving board member, and I’m blowing most of my annual budget on this stupid idea.)
4. Be a legal rule-breaker. Record the meeting on your phone, steal a copy of the agenda and post photos of it on Facebook and/or Instagram. In other words, flout as many of the City Council’s illegal rules as you can.
5. Get arrested. Hopefully, they’ll haul your ass to jail. If that happens, I’ll not only throw your bail, I’ll also pay for an attorney to defend you. No way this ever makes it to trial, although how exciting would that be?
If you don’t get arrested, then Paint Rock can’t even pretend its dumbass rules are enforceable. The Jackson County Sentinel and everyone else in northeast Alabama will know Mayor Fisk and her cronies are full of crap.
Of course, you might be wondering…
No vocal locals?
Why not offer T-shirts and attorneys to the reporters at the Jackson County Sentinel? Simple. Small-town newspapers can’t always afford to defend their rights.
Think of it like this: Less than 53,000 people live in Jackson County. Only 846 businesses ply their trade there.
Where I’m from – Broward County in South Florida – there are nearly 2 million people and 62,000 businesses.
That means I can aggravate 33 people and alienate 70 advertisers before it has the same impact as doing the same thing to just one person and one business in Jackson County.
The Jackson County Sentinel hasn’t endorsed my Free Press Express – and in fact, the editor doesn’t even know about it, although I did offer SPJ support. But I want him to be able to tell his neighbors, “Look, I got no idea what that crazy big-city asshole is doing.”
Paint Rock is just the latest example of an old problem: The worst censorship happens in towns so small, no one gives a damn. That’s even more true today, with everyone keeping score in Trump-vs.-the-national-media.
Ever hear the expression, “All politics are local?” Most journalism is, too. So today’s offer isn’t just about Paint Rock. It’s a proof of concept for the next Paint Rock.
How to apply
Click here or above to fill out a simple form. Before you do, more details…
- WHEN: Sometime in July. The form will ask for your black-out dates.
- HOW: Paid upfront or reimbursed. Some folks like to collect points. Up to you.
- WHERE: For continental Americans only. Sorry Alaskans and Hawaiians, I can’t afford you.
Expect to spend a couple days in Paint Rock, since you’ll probably need to do some investigative reporting just to find out when and where the City Council meets.
If Mayor Fisk realizes she’s wrong before then, I’ll cancel the trip – but I’ll keep the money in reserve until the next time something censorious happens in a small town. Because you can bet on a next time pretty damn soon.