Even as children, we all knew that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
Too bad three Durham officials didn't heed that playground chant before instructing the city's attorney to hit "Send" on a letter to Wikipedia.
And city attorney Kimberly Rehberg should have heeded the advice of noted 20th Century philosopher Meatloaf, who so eloquently stated "I will do anything... but I won't do that."
Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal and city council members DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman sicced Rehberg on whoever was responsible for posting unwelcome information onto their Wikipedia pages: the attorney wrote a letter to Mr. Pedia demanding to know whodunit.
Mayor O’Neal is not seeking re-election, but Freeman is running to succeed her as mayor, and Holsey-Hyman is seeking to win outright the seat to which she was appointed last year. Thus, it’s understandable that they’d want to address fast and furiously anything that puts them in a bad light.
Trying to squelch free speech is the worst light of all, though. There’s a reason that’s the first amendment to the Constitution: that law is sacrosanct and makes no exceptions for when one’s fee-fees are hurt by a Wiki post.
The only result of their effort: The Streisand Effect.
Barbra Streisand, the uber-talented but also uber-thin-skinned actor and singer, hated criticism, and once went nuclear in an effort to quash a story about her that she didn’t like. The unintended-but-oh-so-predictable result of her effort was to focus even more attention on the unflattering story than it would have received otherwise.
So associated with the ill-thought-out effort to silence criticism is Streisand that, despite her Oscars and Grammys, a Google search of her last name brings up – before any of those accomplishments – The Streisand Effect.
I asked Mayor O’Neal’s predecessor, Bill Bell, if he’d ever publicly objected to something written about him.
“You know I’m not a social media person, so I never did that,” he said. “I understood that both criticism and praise came with being mayor or an elected official, so I just took both and moved on – unless I felt it necessary to respond.”
In his “younger political life,” he said, he might fire off a letter to the editor of the local newspapers – “and might’ve been inclined to do the same on Twitter, Facebook and the like had I been using those tools. But as the saying goes, ‘God looks out for babies and fools.’”
Eugene McLaurin, a former mayor, congressman and schoolmate of mine from Rockingham, said he actually preferred face-to-face meetings with critics and complaining constituents. “You have to keep and open mind," he said, "because they may have valid concerns.”
Unless the Wikipedia posts were egregiously wrong – and there’s no evidence that they were – the three Durham city officials should have taken a page, when it came to criticism, from the title of the 1970s hit by the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive: let it ride.
They would have also been better off following the advice of automaker Henry Ford, whose private life became scandal-sheet fodder following an accident in a Ford with a female passenger who wasn’t Mrs. Ford.
Asked how come he didn’t respond to the innuendo and accusations, Ford reportedly summed up his attitude thusly: never explain, never complain.
The Durham officials could have also followed the example of one of my favorite politicians, Tom Fetzer.
In three decades of writing about Triangle and North Carolina public officials, I've written frequently and at times unflatteringly about the former Raleigh mayor.
How did he respond?
He usually didn’t.
And when we encountered each other in public, he was always cordial – dare I say, friendly? - unlike many elected officials who'd contact the publisher demanding my head or other body parts on a platter.
When I saw Fetzer once at a restaurant at Raleigh’s Cameron Village after his politicking days were over, I asked why he seldom complained – even if I got something wrong.
He said something to the effect that as a public official, he knew not to take the criticism personally.
Durham city officials have every right to combat and respond immediately to incorrect, potentially harmful information about them.
But they also need to weigh the potential consequences of a heavy-handed response.
As a voter myself, I – and I’m guessing most of you - will accept the profane passion some council members were criticized for following a widely reported council contretemps full of cuss words and possibly fisticuffs.
We'll forgive fighting: Few of us, though, will forgive attempts to silence critics.