Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Until two weeks ago, I had heard neither of Mason, Tenn., nor of Joshua Lipscomb but thanks to a couple of government agencies, I am now very familiar with them and I bet there are many other Tennesseans who have learned about them.
Mason is the small West Tennessee town located just a few miles from the massive soon-to-break-ground Ford Blue Oval manufacturing campus. The predominantly Black town is home to descendants of formerly enslaved people who worked farms nearby and now, most of the elected officials are Black.
Less than two weeks ago, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower sent a letter to the residents of Mason urging them to surrender the town charter. Mason’s elected officials voted not to do that, but the Comptroller has proceeded with a plan to take over control of the town’s finances, requiring state approval of all expenditures of taxpayer or ratepayer money.
Things probably have not turned out as Mumpower might have expected.
Mason’s elected officials, led by fiery Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers, have pushed back and the case has garnered national attention. Rivers and most of the current town leadership is Black, a change from most of Mason’s past when the town was run by white mayors and aldermen and when white city employees embezzled money and subsequently resigned.
It’s true Mason has in the past had a number of financial difficulties, which Mumpower uses to justify the takeover. This wouldn’t be the first time Tennessee has taken over the finances of a county or municipality but even so, it’s rare: The comptroller’s office can only name two occasions, and in neither was the town or county asked to surrender its charter.
Let’s move on to Lipscomb’s case.
Lipscomb, 30, is a firefighter with the Metro Nashville Fire Department. His grandfather, Thomas Lipscomb, was an assistant chief in the department.
On Friday, the Fire Department suspended Joshua Lipscomb for 16 days for violating several of Metro Nashville’s civil service disciplinary rules, including the “violation of any written rules, policies or procedures of the department of which the employee is employed; any failure of good behavior which reflects discredit upon himself, the department and/or the Metropolitan Government and conduct unbecoming an employee of the Metropolitan Government.”
Lipscomb was notified of the disciplinary charges on Feb. 22 after a tweet considered inappropriate by the Fire Department.
Here’s the rub: Lipscomb’s Twitter account is under a pseudonym, Sir Joshua Black. Lipscomb performs as a stand up comic and painter under his alter ego and over the last couple of years, has achieved popularity via short comedy videos on his Twitter account and affiliation with the Nashville Scene, the city’s alternative weekly news outlet.
“Sir Josh Black” has addressed subjects as varied as Memphis —”Nobody on earth loves anything more than a Memphis man loves Memphis; there’s more dreadlocks in Memphis than in Jamaica and Miami combined”—bachelorette parties in Nashville, hot chicken and former Mayor Megan Barry.
Lipscomb is a Black man and as “Sir Josh Black” has regularly taken on race and politics in his comedy, which is not unusual. Dave Chappelle, anyone? Richard Pryor?
He’s a funny guy but his tweets aren’t always so. Under his pseudonym, he sometimes tweets about serious issues. On Feb. 2, the morning after Nashville’s Metro Council voted in favor of a controversial pilot program to install license plate readers, I wasn’t shocked to see his tweet saying, “The majority of Nashville city council is white supremacists.” Although he didn’t explicitly mention the LPR vote, to dialed in Nashville politicos, his meaning seemed clear.
I’ve never met Lipscomb and had no idea he works for the Nashville Fire Department until the news on disciplinary charges broke, since that information doesn’t appear on his Twitter profile. In his comedy, he makes no reference to his day job or his given name.
I asked for guidance on the First Amendment, as it seemed to me Lipscomb’s suspension comes close to violating his rights, and a local expert referred me to the Pickering Test. Pickering is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education, in which the nation’s highest court gave a framework for First Amendment retaliation claims.
A fine analysis of Pickering by the law firm Haynes Boone points out that to justify claims of protected speech, an employee must have spoken as a citizen and not in an official capacity or in the exercise of government responsibilities. Second, the topic addressed must pertain to a public concern, not a personal grievance. If, the court says, both those requirements are satisfied, the court looks at a third factor: Did the speech impact government efficiency, via whether the speech had a detrimental effect on relationships with coworkers, impair discipline or create extra work for the governmental agency via the fielding of calls from members of the public or damage to the perception of the office.
Based on the first two tenets of Pickering, Lipscomb appears to be on solid ground. Based on the third, Metro Fire Department’s decision to discipline Lipscomb may hold up legally.
But in both the Mason and Lipscomb cases, Tennessee stands to suffer in the court of public opinion. While it’s purely coincidence both these cases involve Black Tennesseans, the look for our state isn’t good. We may not think we are racists but that’s not enough when the nation sees incidents like this.
Our public officials have the right to take many actions; Mumpower has the right to oversee Mason’s finances. The Nashville Fire Department may have the right to suspend Lipscomb.
Ford Motor Co. has now begun weighing in on the comptroller’s issue with Mason and 11 Metro Nashville councilmembers have written to the Fire Department supporting Lipscomb.
Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. And given the pushback both Mumpower and the Fire Department are getting, I suspect they will be the losers here.
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