By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Chuck Turner trashes the First Amendment

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner may or may not end up doing time. But if the indicted councilor has his way, local journalists — including Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe, Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix and Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald — will be subject to legal sanctions for failing to presume that Turner is innocent.

On Friday, the Herald’s Ed Mason reported that Turner had sent a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick asking that a task force be appointed that would investigate “collusion” between federal prosecutors and the media.

Over the weekend, John Guilfoil, the founder and editor of the online magazine Blast, posted the full text of Turner’s screed. In it, Turner calls for nothing less than the abolition of the First Amendment. Guilfoil, a former student of mine, writes, “Five words, Councilor: ‘Congress shall make no law.'”

Turner, in case you’ve forgotten, is under federal indictment, charged with taking cash bribes in connection with the Dianne Wilkerson case.

Tellingly, Turner cites Deuteronomy, the Quran, the Roman Code, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in his argument to muzzle the press, yet makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the First Amendment, which clearly states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Subsequent amendments, as well as Supreme Court decisions, have broadened “Congress” to include all governmental bodies at the federal, state and local levels.)

Turner blasts columns by Vennochi, Reilly and Fitzgerald, saying they have “unashamedly proclaimed my guilt.” He also claims that Globe columnist Adrian Walker’s interview with Ron Wilburn, the cooperating government witness, is proof that the FBI’s affidavit against Turner is full of lies (not how I would interpret it). And Turner includes this tantalizing tidbit:

Even Howie Carr, self proclaimed protector of the public good and verbal slayer of public officials who betray their trust has not even mumbled one word about the fact that the US Attorney’s wire is making accusations against him.

Really? Does anyone know what Turner is referring to? The ball’s in your court, Howie.

Not to save the best part for last, but Turner closes by recommending legal sanctions against journalists who discuss “the ‘evidence’ in the court of public opinion before it has been presented in a court of law,” including:

  • “State legal policy should be significantly reformed to promote respect for the presumption of innocence among state officials, mass media representatives, and citizens.”
  • “Mass media outlets must be prohibited from spreading information that conflicts with the presumption of innocence.”

Now, let me move on to the fallacy at the heart of Turner’s proposal to round up journalists and send them to re-education camp. Yes, the legal system is required to presume that Turner is innocent unless it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not. But the media are under no such constraints.

Turner is free to avail himself of the libel laws if he believes a journalist has said something about him that is false, defamatory and, as he is a public official, made with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. And there are circumstances in which the courts will intervene by way of gag orders on the lawyers in order to balance the First Amendment with the Sixth, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

But this is not North Korea, or even Britain, where the press has far fewer protections than it does in the United States. (I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions with my editor at the Guardian, whose home office is in Manchester, England.) In the U.S., everyone is free to speak and write the truth as he or she sees it.

By the way, I am willing to grant Turner the presumption of innocence. Taking cash from a supplicant shows incredibly poor judgment, but let’s wait and see if it adds up to a criminal act. (Although I was unimpressed by Turner’s claim that the photo might have been doctored — a subject with which Turner has some passing familiarity.)

Regardless of whether Turner is guilty of bribe-taking, though, he has already convicted himself of holding freedom of the press in utter contempt.

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  1. Boston Venerable Bede

    Chuck Turner…America’s City Councilor!

  2. Ani

    If the media is within their legal rights under the First Amendment to publish what they have about Turner, that still leaves the question of whether they should. I’m assuming that’s what Turner was getting at by referring to other sources on what he labels the presumption of innocence.It does sound from Walker’s interview as if the prosecution’s story is not coincident with Wilburn’s, and if that’s so, I would expect the media to pursue that, not merely be content with giving voice to the prosecution’s version. The media have found that in at least some cases (the Duke lacrosse case, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq come to mind) that there may be more than one version of the story, and the media’s reputation suffers when they look as if they don’t have a mind of their own.So while I’m not terribly sympathetic to Turner’s desire for attempts at legislative muzzling of the media, I would love to see more independent coverage of cases like Turner’s.

  3. James

    I am kind of surprised that you are taking this angle on the story, Dan. Turner is known for going overboard rhetorically, but you know that he is not really anti-civil rights or against the 1st amendment. I think the issue here is when cable news and other even mainstream media seem to always suggest that anyone arrested by police is guilty – if not of the crime, then at least of something. Even the small town newspapers are quick to write about an arrest, but not nearly as quick or aggressive in writing about an acquittal. Of course, they are in the business of selling newspapers, but the premise that the media generally focuses on guilt before innocence I think is correct.

  4. Rob

    Turner’s constant confusion in extending the presumption of innocence in a criminal legal matter to all discussion and debate on his alleged crime has gotten ridiculous and strayed from the meaning of the term itself. It is a legal term tied into burden of proof and the government’s requirement to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. It has nothing to do with how the City Council should judge its own members or how the media should write about alleged crimes. Everyone understands that Turner cannot be punished by the legal system until the government proves its case in his day in court, but it does not entitle Turner to an expectation of everyone pretending he does not have a cloud over his head or questioning his effectiveness as a public servant while under indictment. He is stretching the term far beyond what it is supposed to do to grandstand to his small base of diehards and try and taint any guilty verdict that may eventually come down from a jury.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    James: I know by Turner’s own words that he has no regard for the First Amendment. I have no interest in reading his mind in order to determine whether he means what he says. I also have no reason to believe that he doesn’t mean what he says.I prefer to take him seriously, which I think is more respectful than the treatment you’re giving him.

  6. Rob

    Chuck Turner was also quick to hide behind the First Amendment after his well-known production of unsubstantiated and pornographic images claiming to be American military war crimes in Iraq. There, Turner confused his unchallenged right to speak freely and show whatever photos he wanted with his moral responsibility as a public official and even citizen to substantiate such serious allegations before going public with them.

  7. NewsHound

    Chuck Turner as we all know and respect our judicial system is fully innocent until proven guilty.Insomuch as the First Amendment, we are all free to bark all we want up his tree. As a celebrity his actions and appearance is wide open to scrutiny, offensive and defensive. All he can do is bark back but doubt, based on his recent pictures, he can bite.

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