A good lesson in First Amendment rights is playing out now in Atherton, where some members of the City Council are livid about a local blog and email message group that calls itself "Athertonians," which they say is too similar to "The Athertonian," the title of the city's official newsletter. A majority of the council wants the blog to change its name. But to us and many others in Atherton, the name is a red herring. The real problem the blog presents to the council majority is its strident opposition to the town's plan to build a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park.
Athertonians is hardly an upstart, single-minded enterprise. It has been around for eight years, but did not attract much attention until its members started to strongly oppose the library project, which the council majority is attempting to push through despite many calls for a city-wide vote.
The disagreement between the anonymous bloggers and the town has reached a boiling point. But the majority of council members, and the city's lawyer, insist that the effort "...to go ahead and get started in shutting it down," as Councilman Jim Dobbie put it a few weeks ago, is not about the blog's content but about the confusion caused by the similarity of the names "Athertonians" and "The Athertonian." Town officials say they have had numerous residents question whether the Athertonians, a Yahoo group, was an official publication of the town. Even current Mayor Bill Widmer said he has taken part in the group since before he was elected to the City Council several years ago, and initially thought the site was sponsored by the town.
This "tempest in a teapot" might easily be resolved with a simple name change or explanation in the heading of Athertonians, except for the underlying feud between some town leaders and what appears to be a sizeable number of town residents who are using the blog to criticize the effort to build the library in the park.
Strong words have been published on the blog, and library supporters say their views are not posted. The council majority of Mayor Widmer and members Jim Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen seems determined to make life as painful as possible for the Athertonians, directing city staff to urge its anonymous moderators to change the group's name, and if they don't, prepare to take legal action. At the council's April l8 meeting, Mr. Dobbie said, "It's high time we do something."
But from the looks of it, the blog moderators are not going to back down, telling the Almanac that the Athertonians is "distinct from the name used by the town for its infrequent newsletter, 'The Athertonian.' As such, we have no hesitation in assuring you that we are not discontinuing our use of a name we have held for eight years."
In this case, the First Amendment rights of the Athertonians clearly trump any upset felt by the council members or city officials about the blog's content or the possible confusion from the similarity of names to The Athertonian. Any judge would want to know why the city is just now objecting to the confusion, eight years after the blog was created. In this situation, it appears that the council majority is rowing upstream against an increasingly vociferous group of residents who in the Athertonians have an effective communications tool.
It may be time for the majority to back off, agree to put the library move to a vote and end the efforts to smother the ever-growing band of critics. We think a good case can be made to build a new library in the park with funds that are not available for any other use than the library. It is remarkable how Atherton can tie itself in knots over such a simple project. But continuing this fight makes no sense for either side.