The 2020 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 Who Diminish Free Speech

Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

At a moment of national crisis over racism and police brutality, it is depressingly apt that our lead New England Muzzle Award this year concerns an African American teacher in Milton, Massachusetts, who was briefly placed on leave and investigated for telling her sixth-grade poetry students that some police officers are racist.

School officials in Milton quickly backtracked, and the teacher, Zakia Jarrett, received a considerable amount of public support. Nevertheless, it’s sad and telling that the school administration’s first impulse was to punish the messenger rather than focus on the uncomfortable truth of her message.

Other Muzzle Award winners this year include a judge who refused a prosecutor’s request that he drop minor charges against nonviolent protesters (for good measure, he also briefly jailed a defense lawyer for reading the law to him); the police department in Portland, Maine, whose officers made an intimidating visit to a critic’s home under the guise of what appear to be trumped-up vandalism charges; and a town official in Exeter, Rhode Island, who shepherded through an ordinance requiring that people attending public meetings act with “decorum.”

Needless to say, the 2020 Muzzle Awards come at a time of unprecedented crisis, as the country struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse and a long-overdue coming to terms with the legacy of racism.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country, and in some cases turned violent. Police, too, overreacted, driving into crowdsbeating peaceful protesters and deliberately targeting journalists.

New England was spared the worst of those excesses. Still, especially in the early days of the demonstrations, heavy-handed police tactics in Boston and elsewhere sometimes overshadowed the message that the protesters were trying to convey. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told The Boston Globe last week that she is investigating police conduct at those protests.

The New England Muzzles are published around the Fourth of July every year to call attention to outrages against freedom of speech and of the press. They were launched in 1998 at the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the eighth year they have been hosted by WGBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please.

Milton (Mass.) Public Schools

A Black teacher is targeted for speaking the uncomfortable truth.

Perhaps a Muzzle Award should go to the anonymous parent or student who recorded Zakia Jarrett last month as she was leading a remote sixth-grade poetry lesson and said that Black people were “being killed by racist white people … which many of the cops are, as well.” Whoever passed along that clip to Milton school officials sent an ominous warning in this new era of education by Zoom and Google: Be careful what you say, because you’re being watched.

Instead, though, the Muzzle goes to the Milton Public Schools. Their sole response should have been to remind everyone that recording teachers and making the clips public was a violation of school policy. Instead, according to The Boston Globe, Jarrett’s principal at the Pierce Middle School, William Fish, placed Jarrett on paid administrative leave while school officials investigated, sending a chilling message to the entire town.

The action affecting Jarrett was reversed later that day. But a considerable amount of damage had already been done. About 400 parents reportedly signed a letter in support of Jarrett, who is Black, and called on the school system to do a better job of teaching students about race and racism.

School officials quickly backtracked from their initial tough stance.

“At no point was the teacher suspended nor was any disciplinary action taken. The leave was rescinded after a few hours,” according to a statement posted on the school system’s website. The statement added that Schools Superintendent Mary Gormley “met with and apologized to the teacher and followed up with a written apology.”

But the Milton Educators Association, as the local teachers’ union is known, had a decidedly different perspective. In a statement published in the Milton Times, the union said that “nearly an entire week went by before the district responded to this situation in a way that conveyed how its actions let down all of the students and educators. The district’s message still fell short of what the MEA believed would have been an acceptable apology that acknowledged the full impact of this incident.”

What’s sad is that school officials fell back upon an unthinking bureaucratic response at the first sign of trouble. They should have been able to see how this would play out as soon as they received that 13-second clip. Not only could they have avoided a lot of trouble, but they missed a chance to do the right thing.

On June 19, Juneteenth, Milton educators and activists held a rally and march for racial justice. It was a chance for everyone to reflect and to take steps to ensure that nothing like it would happen again.

Despite that support, Jarrett told the Globe she hadn’t decided whether to stay in Milton.

“The word ‘racism’ triggers a lot of negative feelings,” she was quoted as saying. “The idea that people may hold racist beliefs makes them feel bad about themselves. But all people have biases and prejudices. And until we talk about them, we can’t root them out.”

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker

He seeks to end nearly 380 years of access to vital records.

Since 1641, Massachusetts has made death certificates, marriage notices and birth records freely available to anyone who requests them. That could change, though, under an obscure proposal included as an outside section of the budget earlier this year, according to The Boston Globe. The proposal would hide such records from public view for what would amount to a lifetime.

If approved, the measure would be a step backwards in a state already notorious for limited access to public records. The Muzzle goes to Gov. Charlie Baker, who may be under the impression that he’s enhancing privacy protections, but who in reality would be cutting off a vital source of information for journalists and researchers.

Access to such records advances the public interest. For example, WGBH News reporter Jenifer McKim tweeted, “As MA governor works to make birth, death records secret, thinking of the stories I’ve written and produced with the help of these key, currently public, documents,” including suicides at colleges and universities.

 

The genealogical community was angered as well. In an interview with the Chelsea Record, Ryan Woods, executive vice president of the New England and Genealogical Society, said, “Unequivocally it was a surprise to us. There had not been any public discussion about this until it appeared in the budget.”

The Massachusetts Genealogical Council said the measure would make health researchers’ jobs harder and could make it more difficult for women who need to document breast cancer within their families so that they may qualify for genetic testing. The council added: “This is a time when genealogists from throughout the world should step up and be heard.”

By including the proposal in his budget rather than filing it as a separate piece of legislation, Baker has made it more difficult to defeat, as legislators won’t be able to vote against it without also opposing spending measures that they might support.

The governor and the legislative leadership should delete this ill-considered proposal before it is ever put to a vote.

Judge Richard Sinnott

The son of Boston’s last official city censor keeps the tradition alive.

For courtroom heavy-handedness above and beyond the norm, it’s hard to beat Muzzle winner Richard Sinnott, a judge in the Boston Municipal Court.

Last September, The Boston Globe reported that Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins was seeking to drop charges against a group of nonviolent counter-protesters who’d been arrested on minor charges at a so-called Straight Pride demonstration. Sinnott refused.

Next, he ordered one of the defense lawyers, Susan Church, removed and locked up because she had the temerity to read from case law in order to argue that Sinnott had no right to reject Rollins’ recommendation. She was released about two hours later. “All I was trying to do is to read the law to the court, and I was summarily arrested, handcuffed, brought down to the holding cell, held there for hours,” Church told WGBH News.

The lenient treatment that Rollins sought was not indiscriminate, as she asked for more-serious charges to move forward against another group of protesters accused of violence.

“Make no mistake: some people were appropriately arraigned and will be held accountable for actions that put the safety of the public and law enforcement at risk,” Rollins said in a statement reported by Universal Hub. “For those people now tangled in the criminal justice system for exercising their right to free speech — many of whom had no prior criminal record — I will use the legal process to remedy the judge’s overstepping of his role.”

The standoff was resolved quickly. Several days later, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Frank Gaziano ruled that Judge Sinnott had no authority to stop Rollins from dropping the charges, according to MassLive.

Sinnott comes by his Muzzle-worthy ways naturally. His father, also named Richard Sinnott, was at one time the city censor, in charge of banning risqué entertainment such as strip shows and overly salacious Broadway plays. The New York Times called him “the last municipal official empowered to ban wickedness in Boston.”

Good thing that the younger Sinnott’s bid to keep the “Banned in Boston” flame burning ended in failure.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

From their perch in northern Maine, they spy on Canadian mail.

What could be more sacrosanct than your mail? With the exception of prison inmates and targets of criminal investigations, people have a right to receive packages and read correspondence free from the prying eyes of the government.

Unless, that is, you live on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Except for the summer months, when a ferry is in service, mail is delivered to the Canadian outpost over a bridge from Lubec, Maine — giving our Muzzle winner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, entrée to tear it open and inspect it. Residents know their mail has been pawed over when it arrives resealed with green tape.

To be clear, we’re talking about internal Canadian mail, originating in Canada and sent to a Canadian village. The only reason it’s delivered through the United States is because of an accident of geography.

This outrageous situation drew press coverage late last year and early this year from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the BBC, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and other media outlets. As Dale Calder, a retired Canadian government employee, told the Globe, “It’s an invasion of our privacy. There’s personal correspondence in there, people’s health records, and financial records. What are they doing with it once they open it?”

In a statement to CBC Radio, U.S. Customs officials said they “possess broad search authority to ensure the safety and admissibility of all goods entering the United States.”

Although U.S. officials wouldn’t confirm it, residents believe the reason for this snooping is that old demon weed. Marijuana is legal in Canada and Maine, but it remains illegal to transport it over the U.S. border.

“I don’t like American bullying. This kind of stuff bothers me,” an island resident named Steve Hatch, who holds both Canadian and American citizenship, told the CBC. “You should have an expectation of privacy with the mail, and we don’t here on the island.”

Chris Sevier

An out-of-state anti-LGBTQ activist bamboozles Rhode Island legislators.

To be fair, the bill that five Rhode Island state legislators introduced in March was aimed at addressing an unethical journalistic practice: reporting that a public official is under investigation but then failing to follow up. Sometimes accusations are set aside and the target is cleared of wrongdoing. The media should report that, as well.

Mandating a follow-up by law, however, is a clear abridgement of the First Amendment. That is why we are presenting a Muzzle Award to Chris Sevier, an anti-LGBTQ activist from Tennessee who achieved minor celebrity status some years ago for attempting to marry his laptop computer, according to the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today.

Sevier is the leader of a nebulous organization called Stop Guilt by Accusation, which has pushed legislation in a number of states that would require news organizations to report the outcome of investigations into public officials accused of illegal or unethical conduct. “The freedom of the press is not absolute,” Sevier told Mississippi Today.

The Rhode Island legislators withdrew the bill and conceded it went too far, according to WPRI. James Bessette, president of the Rhode Island Press Association and an editor at Providence Business News, told the station, “The fact that this bill — which would be damaging beyond any comprehension — was even introduced is both laughable and frightening.”

A coda: Last January, a similar bill was introduced in the New Hampshire legislature. According to the New England First Amendment Coalition, the legislation would have imposed liability on any news outlet that reported on criminal charges and then later failed to report that the person had been acquitted or that the charges had been dismissed.

The bill quickly died in committee.

Sevier’s group identifies New Hampshire as one of the states where it is pushing his legislation. But state Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, the sponsor of the New Hampshire bill, said in an interview with WGBH News that he had never heard of Sevier, and that the idea was his alone.

“I received a number of concerns from people who had been arrested, became public and were found not guilty, dismissed or dropped,” Flanagan said by email, adding: “My issue was that we weren’t telling what to write, but to write the whole story.”

Flanagan wins a Dishonorable Mention for his attempt to transform a reasonable observation about media ethics into an unconstitutional law.

Andrea Harrington

The Berkshire district attorney’s public records refusal prompts a resignation.

Public records violations are so common that they often don’t get the attention they deserve. Yet the principle that government should be transparent is an important one. If we don’t know what our representatives are up to, then the idea that we live in a self-governing democracy is meaningless. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts public records law is so weak that officials violate it with impunity — even though the law was strengthened slightly several years ago.

Some incidents, though, are so egregious that they warrant special mention — which is how Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington earned herself a Muzzle.

Last December, The Berkshire Eagle filed a public records request about a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock who said she’d been racially attacked. Following an investigation, her claim was found to have been a hoax. Harrington’s office declined to provide the records.

What happened next was truly startling. Harrington’s public records officer, Jeanne Kempthorne, resigned and blew the whistle on the DA, telling the Eagle, “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My concern is that what she [Harrington] did was not in the public’s interest; it was in her interest. This isn’t a private company, and it’s not her campaign. There are bigger considerations — are we actually going to fulfill our public duties?” For good measure, Kempthrone gave the Eagle redacted copies of the records it had sought.

Harrington’s office denied that anything untoward had taken place. But the law requires law enforcement agencies to release records once an investigation has concluded, as was the case with the Bard incident.

“When officials abuse the investigatory exemption of the public records law, they prevent us from learning if justice is being served in our communities,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, in an interview with the Eagle.

Finally, we are awarding a Dishonorable Mention to the Massachusetts State Police, also a 2019 Muzzle winner, which was sued by The Boston Globe in February of this year over the agency’s failure to produce documents related to the paper’s reporting on an investigation into overtime fraud and related matters.

Jeffrey Shedd

A high school principal in Maine shuts down discussion about sexual assault.

Aela Mansmann wanted to call attention to sexual harassment and assault at Cape Elizabeth High School in Maine, where she was a sophomore. So last September, she posted a note in the bathroom that read, “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” Several other girls began posting similar notes.

But when a male student complained that he was feeling targeted (an interesting reaction, given that no one was named in the notes), the school decided to act — not against sexual assault, but against whoever had posted the notes. An investigation of several weeks ensued. And the principal, Jeffrey Shedd, has earned a Muzzle Award for suspending Mansmann and two other girls for three days, writing to parents that the students had made a “bad choice” that “hurt” others, according to News Center Maine.

“I honestly feel very ashamed that my school took this action,” Mansmann said in an interview with BuzzFeed News, adding: “It was really addressing the general culture of our school, and keeping in mind several specific cases. But there are so many it’s hard to pinpoint just one and advocate for just one of them.”

After Mansmann’s parents and the ACLU of Maine filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to overturn her suspension, Judge Lance Walker issued a temporary restraining order, ruling that they were likely to prevail on the merits. “If school administrators,” Walker wrote acidly, “receive carte blanche to tamp down and vet non-frivolous outcries on topics of social justice, expressed in areas generally associated with free student communication, where would that leave us?”

School officials should have taken the opportunity to stand down. Instead, they filed an appeal, with Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs saying that administrators needed to be able to respond to statements “that are likely to spread fear and alarm, or to harm others,” according to a report by WGME and The Associated Press.

Mansmann’s suspension was put on hold pending final resolution of the case, the Portland Press Herald reported. The other two girls have not spoken publicly. It’s time for school officials to end this fiasco and apologize for trampling on the students’ free-speech rights.

Calvin Ellis

A local official in Rhode Island tells the public: Be nice — or else.

Anyone who has spent much time covering local government meetings knows that the internet isn’t the only place where you can find trolls. Cranks of various persuasions often show up so that they can yell, raise irrelevant issues and generally make pests of themselves. Sometimes they even have legitimate concerns.

Such gadflies have been dealt with since time immemorial by asking them to be quiet or, if that doesn’t work, asking them to leave. If they resist, there’s usually a police officer on hand to help them find the door. (These days, of course, they can just be muted on Zoom.)

Which is why Calvin Ellis, president of the town council in Exeter, Rhode Island, has earned a Muzzle. Last September, the council approved his unnecessary, speech-squelching ordinance requiring “decorum” by people who attend public meetings.

“We don’t anticipate enforcement,” said Ellis, according to a report by WJAR. “Only we want proper decorum, proper conduct to prevail.” Well, if you don’t “anticipate enforcement,” why do it in the first place?

Exeter has had its issues. Reportedly, some members of the public have walked out in the face of yelling, and on one occasion the Rhode Island State Police had to be called. But it’s hard to see how a rule mandating decorum would change that.

Here’s the most problematic part of the Exeter ordinance, as reported by the Johnston Sun Rise: “Any person making personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or who shall become boisterous while addressing the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission, or any member thereof, shall be forthwith, by the presiding officer, barred from further audience before the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission at that meeting, unless permission to continue is granted by a majority vote of the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission.”

As Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, put it in a statement: “When does a pointed criticism of a Council member for their stand on an issue become ‘personal’? … When will impassioned comments of a speaker — whether out of enthusiasm or anger — become improperly ‘boisterous’ and subject him or her to removal from the meeting?”

A short time after the measure was approved, the Narragansett Town Council rejected a similar measure. Exeter needs to reconsider. It should be possible to exercise some control over a public meeting without an ordinance that tramples on the First Amendment.

Timothy McCarthy

His pre-pandemic proposal to ban face masks at protests went nowhere.

If we had a category for Most Ironic Muzzle Award, it would surely go to Boston City Councilor Timothy McCarthy. Last September, according to WGBH News, McCarthy persuaded his colleagues to draft an ordinance banning face masks and other identity-shielding coverings at public demonstrations.

What prompted him were the face shields used by some counter-protesters at the anti-LGBTQ “Straight Pride” rally — the same counter-protesters who drew Judge Richard Sinnott’s attention (above). To be fair, McCarthy was targeting those engaging in violence, not peaceful protesters.

“When did people wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a peaceful protest, but don’t forget your razors, and your keys for handcuffs, and your face masks in case you get urine and bleach that you’re throwing at the cops, you don’t want to get that in your eyes,’” McCarthy said.

The irony, of course, is that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now all required to wear face masks outdoors if we’re unable to practice social-distancing. Compliance with orders to wear face masks has been less than universal during the Black Lives Matter protests that have broken out over police brutality and racism, raising the specter of another coronavirus surge. Needless to say, if McCarthy’s misguided proposal had been approved, the Council would now be racing to repeal it.

Last September, McCarthy drew some guarded support from fellow councilors for his proposed face-mask ban, who noted that similar bans have been used to good effect against the Ku Klux Klan. Mayor Marty Walsh, in an interview with Jon Keller of WBZ-TV, said such a ban might make sense as long as there was an exemption for religious reasons.

At a subsequent Council meeting, though, mask-wearing opponents spoke out against the “absurdity” of the measure, according to a Boston Globe account. “Do you feel threatened right now?” asked Belmont resident Alex Marthews, who wore a mask to the hearing.

Anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment. And it’s hard to see how an anti-mask ordinance could be enforced against those engaging in violence while leaving peaceful protesters alone.

Then again, wearing face masks in public is going to be with us for a long time. McCarthy’s idea, wrong-headed though it may have been, now seems like it’s from a distant, better world.

Portland (Maine) Police

Officers intimidate an outspoken critic by showing up at his house.

Journalist Christian MilNeil is the editor of the transportation website StreetsblogMASS, a former data reporter for the Portland Press Herald and a board member of the Portland Housing Authority. In other words, he’s not the sort of guy you would expect to spray two police substations with graffiti, as Portland Police officers claim and as he staunchly denies.

MilNeil believes the real reason that two officers showed up at his house one day last month was because of something rather different: his tweets that criticized the police. Based on the evidence, it appears that MilNeil is correct — and thus we are awarding a Muzzle to the Portland Police Department.

On June 9, as the officers approached, MilNeil took their photo through a window and tweeted: “IDK if this is related to my recent tweets but #portlandme police are at my home now and threatening arrest, they won’t say why.”

 

A short time later he added, “They’re making it pretty clear they’re upset with my recent tweets. One cop told my wife ‘I know about your preconceived notions of police — I know them for a fact.’” (MilNeil later said the officers did not specifically mention the tweets, but he inferred they had seen them from what they told his wife.)

It would appear that the officers were on a mission to intimidate an outspoken critic amid protests against police brutality. Among other things, MilNeil had tweeted about a police officer who’d killed people in 2017 and 2008 — the earlier incident because, according to MilNeil, the officer had “escalated a traffic stop.” He’s also tweeted in favor of defunding the police.

According to the Portland Press Herald, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the graffiti had been written on two community policing substations, one of which was housed in a Portland Housing authority building. “It’s not because of the tweets,” she said in a text.

At deadline, it appeared that attempts were underway to get to the bottom of the incident. The Press Herald reported that City Councilor Kimberly Cook was seeking body-camera video of the encounter as part of the city’s investigation into how the police had responded to Black Lives Matter protests. The Press Herald filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the video, too, but was turned down, with the police citing investigatory exemptions.

Let’s hope some answers are forthcoming. It’s hard to imagine anything more chilling to free speech than having two police officers showing up on a critic’s doorstep and threatening prosecution on the basis of dubious charges.

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