The city attorney's office warned the police department that any city employees who publicly made negative statements about annexation could be called to testify in court, the chief of police said.
Police Chief Freeman Cooper said Friday he was advised of the directive by the city attorney a few weeks ago. He then sent an e-mail to his command staff to tell them about the warning, he said, and the e-mail was forwarded to various officers in the department.
"Per City Attorney -- Any City employee publicly making a negative comment regarding annexation Should expect to be subpoenaed to testify if the City is sued," one version of the e-mail reads.
Officers in various police divisions who received the e-mail or heard about it secondhand said they perceived the communication as a threat and hesitated to speak on the record about either annexation or the e-mail.
City Attorney Mike McMahan was out of the office Friday, his secretary said. Assistant City Attorney Phil Noblett said he did not issue such a statement and was unaware that such an e-mail existed.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said Friday there was no basis for the e-mail.
"Employees can say what they want to, because I doubt they will be called to court," he said. "But elected officials will be."
He said the city attorney's office has warned elected officials about watching what they say in public and in e-mails because they're governed by the state's open records laws.
"Say anything you want, but expect it to be part of the record, which could end up in public court," Mr. Littlefield said.
Whether the city attorney's office issued directives on discussing annexation to other city departments is unclear.
Jerry Stewart, director of the city's waste resources division, Larry Zehnder, the parks and recreation administrator, and Steve Leach, the public works administrator, said the city attorney had not issued such a statement to their departments.
David Holway, president of the national International Brotherhood of Police Officers, issued a statement through a spokeswoman, saying he "was frankly a bit shocked that the city appeared to be eager to step on the First Amendment rights of its employees."
Richard Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association, said there's no legal basis for any city attorney to directly or indirectly order a city employee not to speak on a matter of public or general concern.
Exceptions would occur if an officer was needed to testify as a witness during pending litigation for something such as a car accident or an arrest gone bad, for example, he said.
"Perhaps it's not a direct admonition -- 'Don't talk' -- but it is a veiled sort of suggestion that, if you do talk, it may bring about an adverse consequence to you," Mr. Hollow said. "And it tends to discourage the free and open flow of ideas, which is a restriction on First Amendment rights."