Parents group says it’s against banning books, then calls for books to be banned

A Newburyport parents group denies it’s ever called for books to be banned, then immediately calls for the banning of books. From Jim Sullivan at The Daily News of Newburyport:

A spokesperson for Citizens For Responsible Education said in an email Monday that no member of the group has ever advocated for a book to be banned.

“We have made it crystal clear that sexually explicit books should not be made available on public school property or via the SORA app to minors. If a parent or child would like to purchase books such as ‘Gender Queer,’ ‘This Book is Gay,’ etc., with their own money, then so be it. There is zero educational value to these books and a waste of taxpayer dollars. In fact, giving a child instructions on how to hook up with an adult via a sex app is dangerous on its own merits,” the email reads.

I’m going to guess that no teenager lacks information on how to use a sex app.

Why it matters that The New York Times got it wrong on Section 230

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases involving Section 230. Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH.

Way back in 1996, when Section 230 was enacted into law, it was designed to protect all web publishers, most definitely including newspapers, from being sued over third-party content posted in their comment sections. It would be another eight years before Facebook was launched, and longer than that before algorithms would be used to boost certain types of content.

But that didn’t stop David McCabe of The New York Times — who, we are told, “has reported for five years on the policy debate over online speech” — from including this howler in a story about two cases regarding Section 230 that are being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court:

While newspapers and magazines can be sued over what they publish, Section 230 shields online platforms from lawsuits over most content posted by their users.

No. I have to assume that McCabe and maybe even his editors know better, and that this was their inept way of summarizing the issue for a general readership. But it perpetuates the harmful and wrong notion that this is only about Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It’s not. Newspapers and magazines are liable for everything they publish except third-party online comments, which means that they are treated exactly the same as the giant platforms.

Though it is true that an early case testing Section 230 involved comments posted at AOL rather than on a news website, the principle that online publishers can’t be held liable for what third parties post on their platforms is as valuable to, oh, let’s say The New York Times as it is to Facebook.

That’s not to say 230 can’t be reformed and restricted; and, as I wrote recently, it probably should be. But it’s important that the public understand exactly what’s at stake.

Muzzle follow-up: An Appeals Court panel doles out more pain for the city of Worcester

Worcester City Hall and Common. Photo (cc) 2015 by Destination Worcester.

For years, the city of Worcester withheld public records about police misconduct that had been sought by the local daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette. It’s already cost the hapless taxpayers big-time: Nearly a year ago, an outraged judge ruled against the city and awarded the T&G $101,000 to cover about half the cost of the newspaper’s legal fees. She also assessed the city $5,000 in punitive damages.

That outrageous misconduct, overseen by former city manager Edward Augustus, was the subject of a 2022 New England Muzzle Award, published by GBH News.

Now a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court is asking a logical question: If the T&G was in the right and the city was in the wrong, why shouldn’t the newspaper be compensated for all or most of its legal fees rather than just half? This week that panel overturned the lower-court ruling and ordered Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker to consider increasing the legal fees she awarded, according to a report by the T&G’s Brad Petrishen, who first began seeking the records in 2018.

Petrishen quoted Associate Justice John Englander as saying: “At 10,000 feet, what happened here is the newspaper wanted to write about something and it took them three years to get the documents they wanted to write about.”

The proceedings have been followed closely by Andrew Quemere, a journalist who writes a newsletter on public records called The Mass Dump. Quemere published a detailed account this week that includes some particularly entertaining quotes from an exchange Justice Englander had with the city’s lawyer, Wendy Quinn, at oral arguments in December:

“What did the plaintiffs request or push for that they were wrong about?” Englander asked.

Quinn paused for about six seconds before asking Englander to clarify his question.

“What the heck did you spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over if they should have gotten [the records]?” Englander asked. “If you had a defense, I’d like to understand what the defense was.”

As Quemere notes, Judge Kenton-Walker has consistently taken the position that the city not only erred and acted in bad faith, ordering that the city turn over the documents that the T&G had sought in June 2021 and then awarding $101,000 in legal fees in February 2022.

Even so, the newspaper appealed, seeking the full $217,000 it had paid — and, as the Appeals Court panel has now ruled, it may very well be entitled to that money. Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer who represented the T&G, put it this way at the oral arguments: “To cut [the fees] by 54% sends a message to public records requesters: Don’t bother suing, you’re not going to be made whole even if you win and show that the other side acted in bad faith.”

To make matters worse for city officials, the Department of Justice last November announced that it had launched an investigation to determine whether the police department had used excessive force or engaged in discrimination on the basis of race or gender, although it is not clear whether DOJ was motivated by the T&G’s reporting.

I hope the T&G gets every last dime that it spent on this case. But I should add that the newspaper’s corporate chain owner, Gannett, deserves credit for pursuing this without any guarantee that it would ever be compensated. I criticize Gannett’s cost-cutting frequently in this space, but the company and its predecessor, GateHouse Media, have always been dedicated to fighting for open government, even if it means going to court. They could have told the T&G’s editors to forget about it, but they didn’t.

Finally, a disclosure: David Nordman, who was the T&G’s editor until this past summer, is now a colleague of mine at Northeastern. We work on opposite sides of the campus, literally and figuratively: he’s the executive editor of Northeastern Global News, part of the university’s communications operation, and I’m a faculty member at the School of Journalism.

Some common-sense ideas for reforming Section 230

Photo (cc) 2005 by mac jordan

The Elon Musk-ization of Twitter and the rise a Republican House controlled by its most extreme right-wing elements probably doom any chance for intelligent reform to Section 230. That’s the 1996 law that holds harmless any online publisher for third-party content posted on its site, whether it be a libelous comment on a newspaper’s website (one of the original concerns) or dangerous disinformation about vaccines on Facebook.

It is worth repeating for those who don’t understand the issues: a publisher is legally responsible for every piece of content — articles, advertisements, photos, cartoons, letters to the editor and the like — with the sole exception of third-party material posted online. The idea behind 230 was that it would be impossible to vet everything and that the growth of online media depended on an updated legal structure.

Over the years, as various bad actors have come along and abused Section 230, a number of ideas have emerged for curtailing it without doing away with it entirely. Some time back, I proposed that social media platforms that use algorithms to boost certain types of content should not enjoy any 230 protections — an admittedly blunt instrument that would pretty much destroy the platforms’ business model. My logic was that increased engagement is associated with content that makes you angry and upset, and that the platforms profit mightily by keeping your eyes glued to their site.

Now a couple of academics, Robert Kozinets and Jon Pfeiffer, have come along with a more subtle approach to Section 230 reform. Their proposal was first published in The Conversation, though I saw it at Nieman Lab. They offer what I think is a pretty brilliant analogy as to why certain types of third-party content don’t deserve protection:

One way to think of it is as a kind of “restaurant graffiti” law. If someone draws offensive graffiti, or exposes someone else’s private information and secret life, in the bathroom stall of a restaurant, the restaurant owner can’t be held responsible for it. There are no consequences for the owner. Roughly speaking, Section 230 extends the same lack of responsibility to the Yelps and YouTubes of the world.

But in a world where social media platforms stand to monetize and profit from the graffiti on their digital walls — which contains not just porn but also misinformation and hate speech — the absolutist stance that they have total protection and total legal “immunity” is untenable.

Kozinets and Pfeiffer offer three ideas that are worth reading in full. In summary, though, here is what they are proposing.

  • A “verification trigger,” which takes effect when a platform profits from bad speech — the idea I tried to get at with my proposal for removing protections for algorithmic boosting. Returning to the restaurant analogy, Kozinets and Pfeiffer write, “When a company monetizes content with misinformation, false claims, extremism or hate speech, it is not like the innocent owner of the bathroom wall. It is more like an artist who photographs the graffiti and then sells it at an art show.” They cite an extreme example: Elon Musk’s decision to sell blue-check verification, thus directly monetizing whatever falsehoods those with blue checks may choose to perpetrate.
  • “Transparent liability caps” that would “specify what constitutes misinformation, how social media platforms need to act, and the limits on how they can profit from it.” Platforms that violate those standards would lose 230 protections. We can only imagine what this would look like once Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz get hold of it, but, well, it’s a thought.
  • A system of “neutral arbitrators who would adjudicate claims involving individuals, public officials, private companies and the platform.” Kozinets and Pfeiffer call this “Twitter court,” and platforms that don’t play along could be sued for libel or invasion of privacy by aggrieved parties.

I wouldn’t expect any of these ideas to become law in the near or intermediate future. Currently, the law appears to be entirely up for grabs. For instance, last year a federal appeals court upheld a Texas law that forbids platforms from removing any third-party speech that’s based on viewpoint. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case that could result in 230 being overturned in its entirety. Thus we may be heading toward a constitutionally untenable situation whereby tech companies could be held liable for content that the Texas law has forbidden them to remove.

Still, Kozinets and Pfeiffer have provided us with some useful ways of how we might reform Section 230 in order to protect online publishers without giving them carte blanche to profit from their own bad behavior.

N.H. publisher charged with running illegal ads closes two of her three newspapers

Londonderry (N.H.) Town Hall. Photo (cc) 2021 by Sdkb.

There’s been a sad development in the case of a New Hampshire newspaper publisher who was criminally charged with running political ads that did not include the required disclosure. Debra Paul announced last Friday that she and her husband, Chris Paul, are closing two of their three weekly newspapers, the Nutfield News and the Tri-Town Times. They will continue to publish the Londonderry Times. She wrote:

It’s been a good 18+ years, all things considered. Chris and I didn’t make millions, but we never expected to. I’ve never felt such delight as when people would come up and thank us, saying it seemed like “their” newspaper. Over the years we have come to know so many amazing people, some we call friends and hope to continue to keep even though we are not printing the paper.

The story of Paul’s arrest was reported last August by the investigative news organization InDepthNH. Paul published ads for political candidates that, in several instances, failed to include the words “Political Advertisement,” a violation of state law. No sentient being could possibly have thought the offending materials were anything other than political ads, but that didn’t stop the state attorney general’s office. At least in theory, Paul could be hit with a $2,000 fine or at least a year in prison.

It sounds like an outrageous breach of First Amendment protections, but the law isn’t necessarily unconstitutional because paid advertising does not enjoy the same protections as other forms of speech. In an odd twist, Debra Paul is also an elected member of Londonderry’s town council — an obvious conflict of interest for a newspaper, although that’s entirely unrelated to her arrest.

I could not find a follow-up, so I don’t know if this ridiculous case against Paul has been disposed of. But I’m going to try to find out.

Earlier:

 

Globe journalist forced to testify despite First Amendment concerns

Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston. Photo (cc) 2017 by Beyond My Ken.

A Boston Globe journalist was forced to testify Tuesday in U.S. District Court in a case involving the Harvard admissions scandal. According to the Globe’s Shelley Murphy, politics editor Joshua Miller briefly took the witness stand and attested to the accuracy of quotes in an April 2019 article for which he interviewed the defendant, Jie “Jack” Zhao. Zhao has been charged with purchasing a Needham home at an inflated price owned by then-Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand so that Zhao’s two sons would be admitted to Harvard.

Miller’s compelled participation raises troubling First Amendment issues. Miller testified after a federal judge ruled against his motion to quash a subpoena. That’s not especially surprising. When faced with the prospect of requiring a journalist to testify, judges usually are more likely to rule against the journalist in a criminal case rather than in a civil matter, and they are more likely to rule against the journalist if they are not being ordered to reveal a confidential source. In this case, prosecutors merely sought Miller’s testimony so that they could enter his article into the record.

Nevertheless, the Globe’s lawyer, Jonathan Albano, cited in his motion to quash “the widespread recognition that the First Amendment protects journalists from the needless disclosure of sources, investigative techniques, and both confidential and non-confidential work product.”

Miller’s case also was the subject of a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 40 other media and legal organizations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Dow Jones, the First Amendment Coalition, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Gannett, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, McClatchy, MediaNews Group, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the NewsGuild, The New York Times, the Society of Professional Journalists, Tribune Publishing and others.

The Reporters Committee brief was submitted by First Amendment lawyer Robert Bertsche of the Boston firm Klaris Law. Perhaps the most notable aspect of his brief is that he observes the subpoena was not limited to asking that Miller attest to the accuracy of his article but, rather, was “open-ended.” In other words, if Miller was on the witness stand and was unexpectedly asked about confidential sources or reporting methods, he would either have to answer or refuse and thereby risk being held in contempt of court. Bertsche wrote:

Compelling reporters to testify about their communications with sources — even on-the-record, nonconfidential conversations — harms the newsgathering and reporting process, to the ultimate detriment of the public. It embroils reporters in time-consuming litigation and diverts news organizations’ already scarce resources away from newsgathering and reporting — burdens that weigh especially heavily on journalists who regularly investigate and report on matters that could involve potential criminal activity, and thus whose interviews and other work product could regularly be the target of federal prosecutors. Moreover, enforcement of subpoenas like the one at issue here threatens to erode public trust in the independence of the news media by creating the misimpression that journalists are an investigative arm of prosecutors and courts. That risk is particularly acute in situations where, as here, a journalist’s testimony is sought in connection with a criminal investigation launched after publication of the relevant reporting. Simply put, enforcement of government subpoenas that seek to compel journalists like Mr. Miller to testify in criminal trials risks making reporters’ existing and potential sources—both confidential and non-confidential — more reluctant to speak candidly, or simply unwilling to speak at all.

As I noted recently, Miller was subpoenaed not long after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland was hailed for announcing that reporters would no longer be compelled to testify in leak cases involving national security. This may be a matter of apples and oranges, but it’s notable that the stakes involved in demanding Miller’s testimony are considerably lower than the standard that Garland articulated. Yet that didn’t stop a judge from dragging a journalist into court.

A federal appeals court rules that NH’s criminal libel law is constitutional

The 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger

If we know anything about libel law, then we know that false, defamatory speech is not a crime. It’s a civil matter, to be worked out between the two parties in court. Right? Well … hold on.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that New Hampshire’s criminal-libel statute passes constitutional muster. The case was especially pernicious because the defendant, Robert Frese, was charged with claiming that the police chief in his town of Exeter was a coward who had “covered up for a dirty cop.” That statement may be entirely false; but the idea that someone could be charged with a misdemeanor for criticizing the police is chilling indeed.

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In 2019, I gave the Exeter Police Department a New England Muzzle Award for charging Frese with a misdemeanor, writing that the New Hampshire law amounted to “seditious libel, making it a crime to criticize the government.” It’s something we thought had faded away with John Peter Zenger, a New York printer who was acquitted nearly 300 years ago.

But Judge Jeffrey Howard, noting that the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision does not protect knowingly false, defamatory speech directed at public officials, ruled that Frese did not have a case. Howard wrote:

Mindful of the Supreme Court’s guidance that “the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection[,]” we conclude that Frese’s allegations fall short of asserting viable constitutional claims.

No one would be surprised that Howard would assert that Times v. Sullivan doesn’t protect knowingly false, defamatory statements. But his assertion that such statements may form the basis of a criminal case rather than a civil lawsuit is worrisome — especially at a time when there are rumbles coming out of the Supreme Court that it may be inclined to dial back libel protections, as I wrote for GBH News last year.

Judge Howard and his colleagues had a chance to stand up for freedom of speech. Instead, they chose something else.

The Globe is hit with a subpoena despite new rules protecting journalists

Merrick Garland

Well, that didn’t last long.

Late last month, supporters of a free press were celebrating when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced new guidelines aimed at protecting journalists. As Hadley Baker and Katherine Pompilio wrote at Lawfare, the rules — codifying a policy that Garland had put into effect early in his term — would prohibit “the use of compulsory legal process — the use of subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, and other investigatory practices — against ‘newsgathering’ individuals who possess and/or publish classified information.”

The rules were specifically aimed at protecting journalists in leak investigations involving classified information. But surely the guidelines would inform the Justice Department’s behavior in lesser matters, no? No. Today The Boston Globe reports that one of its editors, Joshua Miller, has been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors who are demanding that Miller testify on Dec. 5 in a case involving the Harvard admissions scandal. Miller broke that story in 2019.

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Miller would most likely not have to testify in 49 states or the District of Columbia because they either have a shield law or, as is the case in Massachusetts, a ruling from their highest state court that journalists are protected from being dragged into court at the whim of prosecutors. The only places that do not have shield protections are the state of Wyoming and the federal government. The courts, though, are supposed to balance the interests of the criminal-justice system against the importance of a free press. As Mike Damiano writes in the Globe:

In a memorandum supporting a motion to quash the subpoena, Globe counsel Jonathan M. Albano cited extensive legal precedents protecting journalists from subpoenas and referred to “the widespread recognition that the First Amendment protects journalists from the needless disclosure of sources, investigative techniques, and both confidential and non-confidential work product.”

The judge in the case may rule against the prosecution, but it shouldn’t get even that far. This is an outrage against the First Amendment. If U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins didn’t know about it, she needs to step in immediately and put an end to it. And if she did know, then she needs to undergo the “comprehensive training” that the Garland memo refers to as soon as possible.

They’re banning books right and left these days

I want to call your attention this morning to two attempts to ban books — one from the left, which will ultimately prove futile, and one from the right, which may be more effective. Together, I think they tell us something important about our culture’s ongoing separation into two very different spheres of reality.

Let’s consider the right-wing book-banning campaign first. We tend to regard such efforts as something out of a Southern Gothic tale, but this one takes us no farther south than a few miles from Route 128. In Abington, a group of parents is attempting to ban “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, from the Middle/High School Library. The book that has come under fire across the country.

“This Book Is Gay” was the subject of a recent meeting by the Abington School Committee. According to the Abington News, “It is traditionally kept in the section of the library reserved for high schoolers. However, during Pride Month last June it was included in a display along with other LGBTQ books.”

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One parent told the committee that displaying the book was “a definite sign of indoctrination and endorsement by the schools,” adding: “Children become victims of the cultural environment that is highly suggested to them. I prefer an environment that is healthy and safe instead of installing ideologies not consistent with family values.”

One complicating factor: A gay selectman, Alex Hagerty, also spoke out against the book, saying that he believed it indulged in outdated stereotypes. But the superintendent of schools, Peter Schafer, said that he supported the book’s availability to older students because, even though parts of it are graphic, “those chapters are really warnings to the reader about safe sex and behavior.”

Because of what sounds like a clash between state and local policies, it’s not clear what will happen next. I hope common sense prevails and that “This Book Is Gay” will remain available in the library for any student who wishes to seek it out. But I’m not holding my breath.

***

Justice Barrett

The futility on the left comes in the form of a $2 million book contract given to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett by Penguin Random House. According to Martin Pengelly of The Guardian, more than 250 people from the literary world have signed an open letter calling on the publisher to re-evaluate its decision to publish Barrett’s book, citing her vote to overturn overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year. The letter states in part:

Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values it proudly espouses to hold. We … cannot stand idly by while our industry misuses free speech to destroy our rights.

So, free speech is “misused” if it expresses views that you don’t agree with? Good Lord. Leaving aside the fact that the health of the First Amendment doesn’t depend on Barrett’s getting $2 million, this turns freedom of expression on its head.

According to Brittany Bernstein, writing in National Review, the protests are coming from inside Penguin Random House as well.

What’s especially absurd about this is that Barrett’s book will (or might?) be published by Sentinel, a Penguin Random House imprint that is specifically focused on conservative titles and whose authors include right-wing figures such as Rod Dreher, the late Ken Starr and Nikki Haley. If the campaign against Barrett’s book succeeds, will the entire Sentinel imprint be next?

The absurdity is that there are conservative publishing houses (Regnery comes to mind) that would be glad to take Barrett’s book and provide her with just as much publicity as she would get from Penguin Random House — maybe more, since they could use its cancellation as a marketing ploy.

In an ideal world, kids would be able to borrow “This Book Is Gay” from their school library and Amy Coney Barrett could publish her book with a mainstream outfit. But that’s not the world we live in anymore.

Are TV stations required to run offensive political ads? The answer is murky.

Rayla Campbell. Photo via @eoinhiggins_

A decision by WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to run a disclaimer in front of an offensive advertisement by Rayla Campbell, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, illustrates the different regulatory frameworks that exist for broadcast stations and other types of media.

Matt Stout of The Boston Globe reports that Campbell’s 30-second ad consists of an attack on Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” and asks viewers if they want children reading what she describes as “child pornography.” “Gender Queer” has become a focus of the right-wing culture war against education, and Campbell has emerged as an outspoken, foul-mouthed warrior.

At her speech before the Republican State Convention earlier this year, she said that Massachusetts teachers are “telling your 5-year-old that he can go suck another 5-year-old’s dick.” Her ad isn’t nearly that bad, but there’s a context. And no, no euphemisms or brackets here at Media Nation — you deserve to know exactly what a major-party candidate for statewide office said in front of convention delegates.

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Now, if Campbell’s ad had been submitted to a print newspaper, a digital news outlet or, arguably, a cable-only station, the folks in charge would have been free to reject it. Just as she has a First Amendment right to embarrass herself, those media organizations have a First Amendment right not to promote speech they disagree with. But broadcast is different. Since the 1930s, the Federal Communications Commission has regulated the airwaves in the public interest on the grounds that broadcast frequencies are scarce, publicly owned resources. Thus, over-the-air television and radio stations must adhere to certain rules. Many of those rules, such as the fairness doctrine and the equal-time provision, have faded way over time, but some vestiges of the FCC’s regulatory regime still exist.

According to Stout’s article, WCVB’s disclaimer says that Campbell’s ad is “not endorsed” by the station, adding that “under federal law, WCVB is obligated to air the following ad without censorship.” The disclaimer also reads, “Please be advised the ad contains language and/or images that viewers may find offensive.”

Stout quotes a couple of experts, including my friend and former “Beat the Press” colleague John Carroll, who says it’s not entirely clear as to whether WCVB really did have to run the ad, calling it a “complicated issue.” Indeed it is. Joan Stewart, a lawyer who specializes in FCC rules, told Gray TV that those rules “only pertain to federal candidates” — in other words, president, vice president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Campbell told the Globe that stations other than WCVB told her that they were restricting their ad budget to federal or gubernatorial candidates. We can’t know if that’s an accurate assessment of what she was told, but if Stewart is correct, then WCVB may have been under no obligation to run Campbell’s ad since secretary of state is not a federal office.

But wait. The FCC’s own website says that though stations are only required to provide “reasonable access” to federal candidates, they must also provide “equal opportunities” to “legally qualified federal, state, and local candidates.” Campbell definitely does fall under that category.

So it appears that the correct answer is “Who knows?” Someday, of course, broadcast is going to disappear, presumably taking the FCC’s mandates along with it. At that point I hope we can move into a better world in which all media outlets have the same First Amendment rights to accept or reject advertising as they see fit.