A 4-to-1 decision by the Waynesville town board to fire the town’s attorney Bill Cannon came on the heels of complaints about Cannon airing his personal political views on Twitter.
Cannon’s routine tweets about national politics reflect his liberal views and a disdain for the far-right Trump faction.
His personal politics had nothing to do with his removal, however. Four of the five Waynesville town board members are registered Democrats.
Instead, it was the tone behind some of Cannon’s tweets that prompted concern — specifically those that disparaged conservative voters, Trump supporters and the GOP electorate in general.
In a tweet criticizing Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, for example, Cannon said: “Cawthorn is an immature jerk, holds office simply because a majority of his supporters admire that kind of behavior.”
In another tweet, Cannon called Cawthorn and his predecessor Mark Meadows “whackos,” and then extrapolated it as an indictment on voters for electing him.
“What a collection of ignorant bigots the GOP has become,” Cannon said in another tweet criticizing Majorie Taylor Greene.
Cannon’s personal Twitter posts were brought to the attention of town officials last week by Chad Nesbitt, a conservative activist, agitator and blogger based in Asheville. They soon became fodder for local conservatives who piled on as well, including members of the public who routinely speak at town board meetings during the public comment sessions.
Among them was Randy Mathis, who recently appeared at a town board meeting wearing a “Rigged 2020” baseball cap. Knowing how Cannon feels about conservatives like him, Mathis wondered whether he would get a fair shake in having his comments heard.
“Everybody is entitled their view, but when you put it out there to the public that you’re anti-Trump and don’t like Republicans, you feel like you’re not on even ground,” Mathis said. “He is hired by the town board and he ought to be representing everyone.”
Another regular speaker at the town board, Joey Reece, felt like Cannon’s Twitter comments went too far by painting conservative voters with a broad brush.
“He bashed citizens of this town and this county,” Reece said. “He is actually signaling to the majority of the constituency that ‘We really don’t give a damn what you think,’ and we’d have no expectation at all of being treated fairly.”
Right or wrong?
Cannon said that his personal political views have no bearing on the role he serves as town attorney. Indeed, the stock-and-trade of the legal profession is being able to separate one’s personal views and be objective.
“I am very proud of my profession and how we are able to have vigorous disagreements,” Cannon said. In fact, Cannon won an American Bar Association speech contest in the 1990s for a speech on the importance of listening to those with opposing views.
It’s worth noting that Cannon is actually registered independent, and he said he willingly votes for Republicans when he likes the candidate.
“I am not a fan of parties,” Cannon said.
Still, Cannon’s tweets clearly take aim at the far-right.
Alderman Jon Feichter said while Cannon has a right to express his opinions, some of the tweets were “highly offensive” toward those of different beliefs. Feichter said villainizing those with different beliefs is a threat to democracy.
“We increasingly see people we disagree with as enemies, worthy only of scorn, contempt or worse,” Feichter said, explaining his rationale for the vote to dismiss Cannon. “If we are going to solve the very serious problems facing this nation, that must change.”
Cannon pointed out that he intended his tweets as comments to be shared among his personal Twitter followers, not as public statements. He has 38 followers on the social media platform.
“I didn’t broadcast this to the public at large,” Cannon said.
That resonated with Alderman Chuck Dickson, the lone town board member who didn’t agree with terminating Cannon.
“I think we all have fundamental First Amendment rights,” Dickson said when explaining his vote. “The things on Twitter were his personal beliefs. Even though it is a public platform, people have to go there and specifically seek it out. I think he saw it as a private thing.”
But Mathis said everyone knows that Twitter is open for public dissection.
“If you don’t want it out there, you need to keep public comments to yourself,” Mathis said.
Cannon said the complaints over his tweets were retribution by some members of the public who recently tried to use the public comment session to openly disparage a liberal activist group called Down Home.
Cannon had forbidden the speakers from bashing Down Home, claiming it wasn’t germane to the town’s business.
“These folks were just trying to dig up dirt as a means of striking back because they didn’t like my ruling,” Cannon postulated last week in response to the complaints.
Social media policy
The town of Waynesville has a social media policy that calls on employees to refrain from “inappropriate comments.” What constitutes an inappropriate comment isn’t spelled out, however, beyond stating that “employees should not engage in harassing or discriminatory behavior.”
The policy goes on to say that employees should refrain from making posts related to town business without including a disclaimer that their views are solely theirs and not reflective of the town as a whole.
In one tweet last fall, Cannon referenced a heated public hearing packed with critics of a proposed mask mandate.
“Today a friend’s mother died from COVID. Tuesday night I was at a Town meeting where anti-maskers made crazy statements that wearing masks is part of a communist plot and dangerous. They expressed little regret for the deaths of others. So much selfishness. So much evil,” Cannon tweeted.
It was Cannon’s job to run the town’s public hearing that night. In a few instances, he attempted to police speakers who were railing against masks, telling them they couldn’t say the word “mask” as it wasn’t actually the intended subject matter of the hearing that night.
That particular tweet was one that aldermen took issue with. But Cannon said he stands behind it.
“There is a difference between having a disagreement over tax policy and things that cost people their lives or put them in danger,” Cannon said.
He feels the same way about GOP attempts to suppress the African-American vote — that it’s just plain wrong, and it’s something he won’t disavow.
“I don’t believe there are two sides to that issue,” Cannon said.
Technically, the town’s social media policy doesn’t apply to Cannon. Cannon is not a town employee, but serves the town as a contracted professional service. So he wasn’t dismissed for violating town policy. Rather, the town board can dismiss him at any time for any reason, per the contract terms.
Nonetheless, Alderman Anthony Sutton said going forward, the town board will likely include a social media policy in the contract of its next town attorney.
In a couple of tweets, Cannon compared the far-right Trump faction to Nazis.
“As I see more and more bigots emboldened to come out from under the rocks and pickup trucks flying Trump and Don’t Tread on Me flags, I wonder if I feel like the same apprehension that some of the Germans felt in the early 1930s,” he said in one.
And in another: “Every time I see a pickup truck with Trump and/or Confederate battle flags, I think of all the photos of Nazis piled on trucks displaying large swastika flags.”