Two years after being publicly reprimanded in the wake of a Facebook post calling Congressman John Lewis a “racist pig,” Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter has filed a new federal lawsuit asking for $5 million in damages.
The suit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta claims that the punishment handed down by Hunter’s commission colleagues in June 2017 violated his First Amendment right to free speech. In addition to the monetary demands, it asks that the reprimand — which was posted at the Gwinnett County courthouse, on the county website and in the county’s legal organ — be rescinded.
“Chilling of 1st Amendment political speech by government officials to negate criticism of other elected government officials … amounts to an overbroad ‘political correctness’ gag order,” Hunter’s attorney, Dwight Thomas, wrote in the suit.
A Gwinnett County spokesman declined to comment on the litigation, which names the county and the four commissioners serving at the time of Hunter's reprimand as defendants.
Hunter, who remains on the county commission, wrote his now-infamous Facebook post on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2017. His statements about Lewis were triggered by a public spat between the Atlanta civil rights icon and then-president elect Donald Trump.
Lewis had questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election.
In its reporting on Hunter’s post about Lewis, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the commissioner had a history of controversial Facebook content. In various posts, he referred to Democrats as “Demonrats,” “libtards” and “a bunch of idiots”; solicited “anti-transgender memes”; wondered why media reports suggested the phrase “colored people” was a racial slur; and called Hillary Clinton “one of the ugliest women in the world.”
Hunter’s actions garnered national headlines, triggered calls for his resignation and launched months of heated protests at commission meetings — as well as a formal ethics complaint, the first in Gwinnett’s history.
The complaint, filed by local attorneys on behalf of an Atlanta woman named Nancie Turner, triggered to formation of the county ethics board. The four-member board — lacking the fifth member that Hunter was permitted to appoint but did not — functions as a recommending body. It suggested that the Board of Commissioners give Hunter a public reprimand, the stiffest penalty possible for an elected official.
On June 20, 2017, Hunter’s colleagues on the commission voted unanimously to do just that, citing a “pattern of behavior that fails to adequately consider the good of the county.” The resolution reprimanding Hunter said his posts and subsequent actions “threatened to create disrespect for the Board of Commissioners” and “compromise important working relationships for the county.”
The new federal lawsuit argues that the reprimand humiliated Hunter and caused him “continued economic injury,” in addition to chilling his right to free speech.
“Today it’s Tommy Hunter,” Thomas told the AJC on Monday. “Who is it tomorrow if you don’t stop it now?”
Donna McLeod, now a Democratic state representative, was one of the leaders of the original protest movement against Hunter. She said the commissioner shouldn't get "another dime."
"Tommy Hunter is a self-serving person," McLeod said. "He has never represented the people ever, and we are finding that out more and more."
Another piece of litigation filed on Hunter’s behalf, meanwhile, is still working its way through the court system.
Following his reprimand, Hunter’s legal team filed a lawsuit in Gwinnett County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the ethics board that recommended his punishment. It argued that allowing non-public entities like the county bar association to appoint members to the ethics board is improper.
That suit was initially dismissed but Hunter appealed. After more than a little confusion and a bit of legal wrangling, the suit made it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court — which kicked it back to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Oral arguments at the Court of Appeals are slated for Tuesday.
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