The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

Previously published at GBH News.

The past year was the most tumultuous in our history since at least 1968, characterized by a deadly pandemic, economic collapse and a presidential election whose aftermath culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol, cheered on — and, arguably, incited — by the losing candidate.

But that wasn’t all. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a revived Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets and protested from coast to coast. The response to those protests, and to the movement in general, leads our list of New England Muzzle Awards this year.

Those censorious actions include police brutality against demonstrators in Boston and Worcester who were attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Efforts aimed at banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Ending a drug counseling program at a jail in Maine because the organization that runs it had expressed sympathy for Black Lives Matter. Grabbing hundreds of copies of a newspaper from newsstands and burning some of them, as racial justice demonstrators did in Burlington, Vermont.

Other prominent winners include former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who refused to comply with multiple public records requests about an internal investigation of former Boston police officer and union president Patrick Rose, who faces 33 charges linked to sexually abusing young children; retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who hit CNN with a $300 million libel suit that seemed aimed more at intimidation than illumination; and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who all but invited his fans to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine by falsely claiming they planned to reveal the location of his home in that state.

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 ninth year they have been hosted by GBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the now-defunct Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please.

Boston and Worcester police
Squelching speech by brutalizing peaceful protesters

There were few if any reports of police brutality at local demonstrations last year over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We flattered ourselves that Boston and other New England cities were different, and that the rubber bullets and rough tactics used by police against largely peaceful protesters in other parts of the country couldn’t happen here.

Then, in December, The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization, published police bodycam videos obtained by defense lawyer Carl Williams that showed Boston police officers blasting protesters with pepper spray for no apparent reason, hitting people with batons and pushing them to the ground. Officers are heard talking about an arrest quota, and one officer is seen possibly stealing a $50 necktie.

In perhaps the most memorable clip, a sergeant is seen and heard bragging about driving his vehicle into the crowd on Tremont Street. Then, when he realizes he’s being recorded, he changes his story. “Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all,” he says.

Two months later, The Appeal was back with more video from Boston — and from Worcester as well, where bodycam footage captured peaceful protesters being violently thrown to the pavement and arrested. Charges against all of them were later dropped — including those filed against a freelance photojournalist, Richard Cummings, who told the Columbia Journalism Review he was shoved against a wall and handcuffed so tightly that he bled. He said that videos were deleted from his camera as well.

The CJR cited data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Cummings was one of more than 125 journalists who were arrested or detained across the country in 2020, and that 43 of them were reportedly assaulted.

And the fallout continues. Several weeks ago, four of the protesters sued the Boston police and three of its officers in federal court. According to Universal Hub, they were attacked with batons and pepper spray following a peaceful rally on Boston Common last May 31.

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins called the Boston videos “incredibly troubling” and referred the case for further action, The Appeal reported. In a statement, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley told the website: “The inexcusable actions of officers in these disturbing videos make painfully clear why our communities are standing up, speaking out and demanding decisive action to combat the public health crisis that is police brutality in our nation.”

Marty Walsh
The former Boston mayor stonewalls in the notorious Patrick Rose case

It was a shocking arrest that continues to reverberate. Last August, Patrick Rose, a retired Boston police officer and former president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, was arraigned in West Roxbury District Court on 33 charges in connection with sexually abusing six underage children. (Rose has denied the charges.)

In April of this year came a stunning follow-up. The Boston Globe reported that Rose had been investigated by the Boston Police Department’s internal affairs unit in 1995. Although criminal charges were dropped because the 12-year-old boy who said he was the victim declined to press charges, the internal investigation determined that the boy was most likely telling the truth. Yet Rose’s actions were covered up; he continued in his job for another 21 years and, according to the charges against him, molested more young girls and boys.

The Globe was able to develop its story despite stonewalling by then-Mayor Marty Walsh, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and who has richly earned a Muzzle Award. Walsh refused numerous public records requests filed by the Globe starting last October, arguing that those records could not be redacted in a way that would protect the alleged victims’ identities.

Walsh stuck to that refusal even after the state’s supervisor of public records concluded that Walsh was wrong and that Rose’s internal affairs files should be released. That speaks volumes not only about the former mayor’s lack of transparency but about the inadequacies of the state’s public records law, which was strengthened several years ago but which remains largely toothless.

After the Globe’s story was published, Acting Mayor Kim Janey ordered a partial release of the records. But as a Wall Street Journal editorial noted, the Globe’s report and Janey’s action came “only after Mr. Walsh was confirmed as Labor secretary. This means the Rose story wasn’t known during Mr. Walsh’s Senate confirmation hearing.”

The Rose scandal wasn’t the only police-related mess Walsh left behind. He also appointed a new police commissioner, Dennis White, apparently without any vetting. White became embroiled in domestic-violence allegations (which he and one of his daughters vigorously deny) almost from his first day in office, and he was placed on leave until Janey fired him in early June. Walsh says he knew nothing, contradicting the former commissioner, Willie Gross.

But the White matter, at least, will be resolved at some point. The controversy over the way the Rose investigation was handled is likely to result in pain and recriminations for months if not years. Walsh’s attempt to cover up the details was a grotesque violation of his public responsibilities.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha
His embrace of “civil death” strips lifers of rights and dignity

A pair of Rhode Island state prison inmates, both convicted murderers serving life sentences, claim they were injured while behind the walls. One, James Lombardi, says he cut himself on a foot locker that prison officials knew was hazardous. The other, Joshua Davis, alleges that he was given a contaminated insulin shot. They’d both like to sue the state for negligence, but they can’t. Why? Because, according to the state’s 110-year-old “civil death” law, they’re considered “dead in all respects” when it comes to their civil liberties.

The Muzzle for this outrage goes to Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, a Democrat, who is defending the state against a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Rhode Island that seeks to overturn the law as unconstitutional.

Defending the state is part of the attorney general’s job. But in a brief that Neronha filed asking that the suit be tossed out, he expressed unusual gusto for the law. One section of his brief, for example, is titled “Rhode Island’s Civil Death Statute Is a Constitutional Means of Punishing the State’s Worst Criminals.” In that section, he argues that life in prison — or, for that matter, the death penalty — are more severe punishments than civil death yet pose no constitutional issues.

But there are, in fact, punishments that many would regard as worse than life in prison, or even death. The civil death law at least theoretically enables those punishments. In 2017, the ACLU sent a letter to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo asking that she intervene in a different case. As the ACLU’s state executive director, Steven Brown, explained, civil death means that “an inmate … serving a life sentence could be waterboarded, beaten mercilessly by guards, or held in a cell and denied all food and water, but have no access to our state courts to challenge these egregious violations of his constitutional rights.”

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, Rhode Island is the last state with such a statute on the books that is actually enforced. In March of this year, U.S. District Judge William Smith refused the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and in so doing neatly skewered the illogic of the state’s position, which was that Lombardi and Davis should sue in state court. Without a ruling that the civil death law is unconstitutional, Smith pointed out, any such lawsuit would be instantly dismissed.

“Plaintiffs face the very real threatened harm of having their civil negligence claims barred by the application of an arguably unconstitutional statute,” Smith wrote.

It’s time for Neronha to withdraw and join 49 other states in conceding that the law is an unconstitutional relic of the past.

Piscataquis (Maine) County Commission
Violating the open meeting law and silencing critics on Zoom

The COVID-19 pandemic posed an enormous challenge to open government, as public meetings were moved from in-person gatherings to Zoom. Few did a worse job of responding to that challenge than the Piscataquis County Commission in Maine, which followed up a likely violation of the open meeting law with a virtual session in which most members of the public were silenced.

According to the Bangor Daily News, the three commissioners adopted a resolution on Jan. 13 of this year objecting to Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 restrictions and referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus.” The resolution also contained falsehoods, such as an assertion that face masks cause pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.

Trouble was, the commission didn’t actually meet. Commission Chair James White acknowledged that the resolution was formulated through an exchange of emails and phone calls, with no provision for the public to observe what was going on, as the open meeting law requires.

Shortly thereafter, they met in public to sign the resolution. About a dozen people attended in person while another 100 logged on via Zoom. White reportedly laughed when someone complained that the term “Wuhan Virus” was racist. But when one online participant complained that not enough time had been made for public comment, White cut off the Zoom call — an action that resulted in the public not being able to hear the commissioners, either.

“The Piscataquis County Commissioners deliberately violated the Maine Freedom of Access Act and struck at the core value of public oversight of government action when they passed a resolution in secret, silenced critical voices, and blocked remote attendees from hearing the proceedings,” Emma Bond, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement.

Nor were the county commissioners the only public body to be tripped up by the exigencies of pandemic life. In New Gloucester, Maine, the Lakes Region Weekly reported that a racist statement made by Selectman George Colby — he said, “Liberty and justice for all, for everyone. Even us white folks!” following the Pledge of Allegiance — was edited out of a video posted on the online community website at the direction of local officials.

The edit was later restored, and Colby ended up resigning his post.

Plymouth town officials
Trump supporter threatened for his anti-Biden yard signs

The Muzzles wouldn’t be the Muzzles without at least one item about local officials who take it upon themselves to ignore the First Amendment and tell a resident to remove a political sign from their property. This year’s winners are town officials in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who threatened a Trump supporter named Joe Casieri with a $300-a-day fine if he didn’t take down a sign that said “Biden Is Not My President.”

Casieri told NBC Boston that he was singled out for his anti-Biden message even though there were other political signs in his neighborhood, adding he received two certified letters from the town. He admitted, though, that he briefly had a considerably more offensive sign up that suggested a certain anatomical act be performed on the new president. That evidently caught the attention of town officials, although Casieri insisted that the sign was on display for only a short period. “I figured that’s a little bit over the top,” he said, according to CBS Boston, “so I took it down.”

Plymouth Town Manager Melissa Arrighi said in an interview with 7 News Boston that Casieri’s advocacy drew attention from offended members of the community. “We were getting complaint calls from quite a few residents,” she said. “It wasn’t just one or two phone calls.”

But after the ACLU of Massachusetts intervened, town officials decided not to enforce the ordinance, which prohibits political signs more than a week after an election as well as those that are offensive.

“Everybody has the right to freedom of speech,” Casieri was quoted as saying. “That’s what this case was about. Everybody has the right whether it’s left, right, middle.”

Whether Casieri likes it or not, Joe Biden is everyone’s president. Casieri is correct, though, about his right to freedom of speech. And now Plymouth officials have learned that lesson as well.

Tucker Carlson
Unleashes his mob on a pair of hapless freelance journalists

One night last July, three members of a terrified family locked themselves in an upstairs room of their home in Maine as someone — apparently more than one — pounded on the door and tried to get in.

“My brother-in-law is a journalist and a news source posted his name on, uh, Tucker Carlson show and his address and things of that nature so he has, um, been getting threats all night long,” said the brother-in-law of Tristan Spinski, a freelance photographer who occasionally gets assignments from The New York Times. Spinski and his wife were there as well. The quote comes from a 911 call obtained by Erik Wemple of The Washington Post.

So what happened? Last summer, Tucker Carlson claimed, falsely, on his Fox News show that the Times was planning to dox him in an upcoming story by revealing the address of his home in Maine and running photos of it. He called out the journalists by name: “So how would Murray Carpenter and his photographer, Tristan Spinski, feel if we told you where they live? If we put pictures of their homes on the air?” And he let his adoring fans do the rest.

“The threats against the two freelancers came via email, voice mail, etc.,” wrote Wemple — even though the Times had reportedly already assured Carlson on two separate occasions that the story would not include the address or photos of his home.

Carlson has a weird history regarding his privacy in Maine. Two years ago, he canceled plans to build a studio next to a public library from which he sometimes hosts his show, blaming the Sun Journal of Lewiston for revealing the location. Yet he had all but announced its coordinates on the air, referring to it as “the northernmost bureau of Fox News.” A year later, his plans were apparently back on again.

In any case, putting two freelance journalists at risk of bodily harm even though he had been told they had no intention of doxxing him had its intended effect. The story never ran. And though the Times has a well-deserved reputation for resisting intimidation, freelance journalists everywhere were put on notice not to mess with Tucker Carlson.

Donald Trump
The inspiration behind efforts to ban the teaching of racial justice

In Rhode Island, state Reps. Patricia Morgan, George Nardone and Sherry Roberts, all Republicans, introduced a bill that would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and other programs. In New Hampshire, state Rep. Keith Ammon, also a Republican, filed a similar bill.

In Dedham, Massachusetts, the high school football coach, David Flynn, complained that one of his seventh-grade daughter’s teachers was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and teaching critical race theory. (Flynn is suing after being fired from his coaching position. He claims it was because of his complaints, and he may have a point.)

A similar controversy is playing out in Maine, where a Cumberland father named Shawn McBreairty says he was nearly banned from his twin daughters’ high school graduation, and would not be allowed to attend their final band concert, following his objections to critical race theory being taught in their school.

And in Essex, Vermont, more than 100 people turned out for a public meeting to denounce critical race theory, Black Lives Matter and the local school district’s equity policy.

Given the multifarious nature of this outpouring of grievance from white people in the face of calls for racial justice, it is difficult, if not impossible, to single out one person to whom to award the Muzzle. But surely former President Donald Trump deserves a large share of the blame. It was Trump who brought racism front and center as a Republican value and who stirred up white backlash during the protests that followed the deadly police shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The objections to teaching racial justice in schools are also largely inspired by Trump, who issued an executive order in September 2020 banning the federal government and contractors from using curriculum “that examined systemic racism, white privilege and other race and gender bias issues,” USA Today reported. President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s order.

Critical race theory, or CRT, which has become an obsession on Fox News, can be defined in a number of different ways. Although it has a specific, academic meaning, in everyday usage it holds that racism is a systemic social ill that can’t be eliminated solely by addressing individual instances of racism — which is really no different from what Biden says regularly. Among its critics on the right, CRT seems to mean anything they want it to mean.

As a result of Trump’s toxic legacy, Axios reports that Rhode Island and New Hampshire are among at least nine states considering classroom bans on critical race theory, and that four — Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho and Texas — have already passed such bans.

The Oklahoma ban went into effect just as the nation was marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which illustrates precisely what makes such laws so pernicious. Few Americans ever learned about the massacre when they were in school. And if Trump supporters have their way, that unblissful state of ignorance will continue in perpetuity.

Alan Dershowitz
Files an unnecessary libel suit aimed at chilling free expression

A basic principle of libel law holds that public officials and public figures don’t need the sort of robust legal protections granted to private individuals because they have other, more effective ways of fighting back when their reputations are attacked.

“Public officials and public figures usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication, and hence have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in Gertz v. Robert Welch in 1978.

Few public figures are more ubiquitous in the media than retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who is ever-present on cable television and in the op-ed sections of newspapers. So it is fair to speculate that he was seeking to send a message — and an intimidating one at that — when he filed a $300 million libel suit against CNN last September.

Dershowitz’s complaint hinges on how CNN covered his testimony before the Senate in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. Dershowitz said that pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Biden family in order to boost his re-election prospects would not be an impeachable offense as long as he believed that winning would be in the public interest.

The problem was that Dershowitz also said he would make an exception if the actions in question were illegal. According to his lawsuit, CNN edited that out, leading to the network’s commentators to mock Dershowitz and claim he said that the president “could do anything at all — including illegal acts — and be immune from impeachment.”

Dershowitz told The Boston Globe: “It was a coordinated smear, done deliberately and with malice aforethought.”

But even if you accept Dershowitz’s account, including his allegation of malice on CNN’s part, there were far better ways for him to refute CNN than filing a lawsuit. He could give interviews — like the one he gave the Globe. He could write op-eds. He could hit the cable nets — maybe even CNN, which probably would have been happy to give him a forum if he hadn’t sued them.

In other words, Dershowitz’s suit isn’t about restoring his reputation. He could do that by using the megaphone he already has to tell his side of the story. Rather, it’s about cowing his critics into silence. For someone who’s devoted his career to freedom of speech and civil liberties, his action against CNN is disappointing, to say the least.

Protesters in Burlington, Vermont
Attacking the messenger by destroying hundreds of newspapers

Last September, Seven Days, an alternative weekly newspaper in Burlington, Vermont, published a lengthy account of a Black Lives Matter protest and encampment that had been taking place for more than a month in the city’s Battery Park. The first-person story, by staff reporter Chelsea Edgar, took a somewhat skeptical view of the protesters, noting their reluctance to speak with the media and quoting Anthony Marques, a Black former organizer, who criticized some of the Black women leading the action.

“See, what’s happening is a cult,” Marques was quoted as saying. “They think it’s OK to exploit white people, is what’s happening. It’s an exploitation of white people that show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays, wearing black, because those are the big days to show up and pretend that you’re not racist. It’s just a shit show. It’s sickening.”

Not surprisingly, the other organizers were less than pleased. But what happened next was inexcusable. According to a follow-up story, Black Lives Matter protesters grabbed hundreds of copies of Seven Days from newsstands and destroyed them, burning some of them. They held up copies of the paper as they marched through the streets, chanting “Say her name” and “Believe Black women.” They painted messages on some of the papers aimed at calling attention to white supremacy and patriarchy. They denounced “the misogynoir, racism, sexism and clear patriarchal content” that they said characterized Edgar’s story.

Seven Days publisher Paula Routly issued a statement in which she said, “The individuals carrying out these retaliatory actions are exhibiting the very authoritarian behavior they are protesting.”

No kidding. In these fraught, polarized times, it might seem quaint to talk about the “marketplace of ideas,” or to cite the old adage from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that the solution to bad speech is “more speech, not enforced silence.”

But at a time when democracy itself is under attack — mainly from the right, but from elements of the left as well — it’s vital that we all stand up for the free exchange of ideas as the best way to work out our differences. Stealing and destroying newspapers is not the way to do that.

Sheriff Scott Kane
Maine inmates denied drug counseling over a Black Lives Matter dispute

For about eight months, jail inmates in Hancock County, Maine, had no access to opioid counseling, even though substance abuse is rampant among people who find themselves behind bars. The reason? Sheriff Scott Kane had barred the nonprofit organization that provided the counseling, Healthy Acadia, after it issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in June 2020.

The problem went unnoticed beyond the walls of the jail until January, when the Bangor Daily News revealed what had happened. Even though Healthy Acadia modified its statement and removed a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, Kane, a Republican, refused to back down, falsely describing BLM as a “terrorist group” that seeks to overthrow the government and kill police officers.

“We just don’t do business like that,” Kane was quoted as saying. “I believe no matter what race you are, your life matters.”

After the Daily News’ story was published, the Hancock County Commission condemned Kane’s actions but rejected a resolution asking him to resign, according to WABI-5.

The consequences of Kane’s decision were devastating. Another recovery program that had been identified as willing to step into the breach proved unable to do so. Then, finally, Kane’s office and Healthy Acadia worked out a new agreement that brought the nonprofit back into the county jail. Problem solved — but by that point it was February, and months of much-needed drug counseling had been lost.

The agreement called for the two sides to “communicate regularly with mutual respect” and specified that neither side could walk away without giving 30 days’ notice. That should prevent a similar situation arising in the future.

Still, it remains disturbing that inmates were denied drug counseling because of one public official’s objection to a nonprofit’s exercise of free speech on behalf of Black victims of police violence.