Muzzle follow-up: New Hampshire adopts ban on ‘divisive’ antiracism education

I posted this at the bottom of my GBH News column for today, but I want to publish it here as well.

The GBH News 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted at the time, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

This is a blow against local autonomy, coming from the “Live Free or Die” state.

In a related development, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham starts to connect the dots with Parents United, a group of wealthy white parents who are so, so concerned about antiracism education. Follow the money, as they say, and Abraham documents ties to the Club for Growth and the Federalist, two formerly conservative organizations that have moved to the Trumpist right in recent years.

The Supreme Court may be poised to weaken libel protections for the press

Photo (cc) 2005 by zacklur

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’ve learned anything about right-wing politics in the Age of Trump, it’s that what once seemed impossible becomes plausible — and then morphs into a new reality. We’ve seen it with the refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election. We’ve seen it with attacks on face masks and vaccines. And now we may be seeing it with libel law.

For more than half a century, protections enacted by the U.S. Supreme Court have shielded the press by enabling journalists to hold the powerful to account without having to worry about frivolous libel suits. The 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan established the principle that a public official would have to prove a news organization acted with “actual malice” — meaning that the offending material was known to be false or was published with “reckless disregard for the truth.” That standard was later extended to public figures as well. The decision provided journalism with the armor it needed to report fearlessly, enabling stories such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

It seemed impossible that this bulwark would fall when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for people to sue media outlets. And it seemed only slightly less impossible in early 2019, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an intemperate dissent arguing that Times v. Sullivan should be overturned in its entirety, returning libel law to the tender mercies of the states.

After all, the actual malice standard was enacted because the racist white power structure in the South had weaponized libel during the civil rights era as a way to intimidate the press. Surely Thomas’ fellow justices had no desire to return to those blighted days. Besides, a strong First Amendment appeared to be one of the few areas on which liberal and conservative judges agreed.

But weakening those protections began to seem more plausible several months ago when Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia praised Thomas — and joined his call to overturn Times v. Sullivan. Silberman threw a judicial tantrum, blasting what he viewed as liberal media bias and writing that “when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.”

Impossible. Then plausible. And, now, a glimmer of a potential coming reality: Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in dissenting from a decision not to hear a case brought by the son of a former Albanian president against the author of a book who’d accused him of illegal gunrunning. Thomas’ opinion bristles with indignation and approvingly cites Silberman. Gorsuch, in turn, cites Thomas. But unlike Silberman and Thomas, Gorsuch’s opinion is all sweet reasonableness, discussing how much the media have changed since 1964 and asking, gosh darn it, why we shouldn’t acknowledge that social media, cable news and clickbait websites require a different approach to libel.

Arguing — correctly, I should note — that the actual malice standard allows media outlets to escape a libel judgment if they can prove they believed the defamatory falsehoods they published were true, Gorsuch writes: “It seems that publishing without investigation, fact-checking, or editing has become the optimal legal strategy…. Under the actual malice regime as it has evolved, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

Gorsuch’s conclusion oozes good intentions. “I do not profess any sure answers,” he writes. “I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking. But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

Gorsuch’s opinion relies heavily on an academic paper titled “Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,” by David A. Logan, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Logan writes that actual malice has provided the media with “what amounts to an absolute immunity from damages actions for false statements,” which in turn has “facilitated a torrent of false information entering our public square.”

Logan’s examination of the data shows that libel judgments have plunged in the years since Times v. Sullivan, suggesting that the decision has created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to public officials and public figures who’ve been wronged. He suggests several possible remedies, such as narrowing the definition of a public figure or devising a system that would allow plaintiffs to “secure a judgment of falsehood in return for giving up a claim for damages.”

And he closes with the big one: getting rid of the actual malice standard altogether and replacing it with something easier to prove, such as “highly unreasonable conduct.”

Changes that result in fewer protections for the press make me queasy. But if the Supreme Court is serious about revisiting actual malice, then adopting something like a juiced-up negligence standard, as Logan proposes, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome. Negligence is already the standard for private figures in most states, as laid out in the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. It would certainly be better than overturning Times v. Sullivan altogether.

But remember: What seems impossible today may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Changes to libel protections that we had long taken for granted are starting to look inevitable, especially in the hands of a Supreme Court built by Trump and Mitch McConnell. Let’s just hope the justices don’t do too much damage to the press’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

Muzzle follow-up

Well, it happened. The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

Looking back at 24 years of New England Muzzle Awards

In the spring of 1998, civil-liberties lawyer and First Amendment advocate Harvey Silverglate had an idea: Why not single out enemies of free speech in the pages of The Boston Phoenix? Harvey was a Phoenix contributor; I was the media columnist. We refined Harvey’s idea and, at his suggestion, named them the Muzzle Awards — borrowing the name from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (now defunct) and restricting them to the Boston, Worcester, Portland and Providence areas, where we had papers.

We decided on the Fourth of July for two reasons — first, to emphasize that the Muzzles were an expression of patriotism; second, so that the rest of the news staff could pretty much take the week off. The first annual Muzzle Awards were published on July 3, 1998. Among other winners, we singled out of the FCC for shutting down Radio Free Allston, a pirate station that served the community at a time when it was even harder to get a license for a low-power FM operation than it is today; the town of Plymouth, where police roughed up Native American protesters; and Walmart, for refusing to sell CDs that carried a parental warning label.

The Muzzles turned out to be a hit. David Brudnoy and, later, Dan Rea would have me on to talk about them on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) and — I’d like to think — we helped educate our readers about the importance of free expression.

I continued writing the Muzzles after leaving the Phoenix for Northeastern in 2005. At that point, I stopped singling out colleges and universities because I thought it would be a conflict of interest. Harvey began writing the Campus Muzzle Awards as a sidebar.

Then, in the spring of 2013, The Boston Phoenix closed abruptly, and we needed a new home for the Muzzles. Fortunately my friends at GBH News stepped up and have been hosting them ever since. Although The Worcester Phoenix was long gone at that point, the Muzzles continued to appear in the Providence and Portland papers until they, too, shut down. (The Portland Phoenix was revived a couple of years ago under new ownership and appears to be doing well.) And here’s a pretty astonishing fact: Peter Kadzis has been editing the Muzzles from the beginning, first at the Phoenix, now at GBH.

This year’s New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, are, like their predecessors, a reflection of the era. The Black Lives Matter protest movement that was revived after the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor figure in several of the awards — from Boston and Worcester police officers who brutalized peaceful demonstrators, to racial justice protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole and destroyed copies of a newspaper whose coverage they were unhappy with, to Sheriff Scott Kane of Hancock County, Maine, who banned a desperately needed drug-counseling service from his jail after the nonprofit posted a statement on its website in support of Black Lives Matter.

We have some well-known winners, too, including Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. The town of Plymouth is back as well — this time for threatening punitive fines against a Trump supporter who’d put a sign critical of President Joe Biden on his lawn.

This is the 24th year of Muzzle Awards, so next year will be a landmark. Will they continue after their 25th anniversary? Right now I couldn’t tell you. I have put together an index of all 24 years in case you’re interested in what previous editions looked like. Link rot had claimed some of them, but I was able to overcome that thanks to the Internet Archive.

The animating spirit of the Muzzles was best expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

It’s been a long ride — and I’ve already got a candidate for the 2022 edition.

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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. Continue reading “The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech”

Ron DeSantis’ latest stunt would make Joe McCarthy proud

Joseph McCarthy. Painting via the National Portrait Gallery.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s running hard for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, signed a bill this week that is a masterpiece of performative McCarthyism. Ana Ceballos of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the legislation will require the state’s public colleges and universities to conduct an intrusive survey into the beliefs of students, faculty and staff.

The survey, Ceballos writes, will be used to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether “intellectual diversity” is supported on campus. The new law could be the basis for budget cuts “if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students,” according to Ceballos.

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Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memo reports that, at a news conference following the signing, DeSantis castigated many colleges and universities as “intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”

DeSantis’ action, needless to say, is a grotesque violation of the First Amendment. But that’s nothing new for him, as I’ve written previously.

DeSantis has also banned public school curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which he falsely calls “false history,” as well as instruction in critical race theory — an academic concept that, as Kovensky notes, has little to do with the diversity training and teaching about systemic racism that school systems actually engage in.

In a straw poll of potential 2024 candidates held last weekend at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, DeSantis narrowly beat Donald Trump, according to The Hill. But first he has to win re-election as governor.

Florida had been trending bluish in recent years but appears to be moving back into the Republican column based on the past several elections. Still, a number of Democrats are lining up to challenge DeSantis, including Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor himself.

The problem with McCarthy-style populism is that it’s popular — until it isn’t. We’ll see how DeSantis’ latest attack on freedom of expression plays with Florida voters.

SJC rules that deception in recording someone does not violate the law

Joe Curtatone. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Somerville Media Center.

The state Supreme Judicial Court on Monday issued an important — and, to me at least, surprising — clarification of the Massachusetts wiretapping law, ruling that it’s not necessary to obtain someone’s consent before recording them. All that’s needed, the court said, is to inform the second party that they’re being recorded. That doesn’t change even if the person making the recording lies about their identity. Here’s Travis Andersen’s account in The Boston Globe.

The case involves Kirk Minihane of Barstool Sports, who in 2019 recorded an interview with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone by claiming to be Globe columnist Kevin Cullen. Minihane then played the interview on his podcast. Curtatone sued, arguing that he would not have agreed to being recorded if he had known he was speaking with Minihane rather than Cullen. Justice Frank M. Gaziano writes:

Minihane did not secretly hear or record the challenged communication within the meaning of the act, because the plaintiff knew throughout the call that his words were being heard and recorded. The identity of the party recording the communication or, indeed, the truthfulness with which that identity was asserted is irrelevant; rather, it is the act of hearing or recording itself that must be concealed to fall within the prohibition against “interception” within the act.

And here’s Gaziano’s conclusion:

Because Minihane did not secretly record his conversation with the plaintiff, the challenged recording does not fall within the statutory definition of an “interception” within the meaning of the Commonwealth’s wiretap act. The plaintiff thus has not made factual assertions sufficient to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.

The first indication of where the case might be headed came earlier this year, when the ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief in support of Minihane and Barstool.

Massachusetts has often been described as a “two-party consent” state when it comes to recording conversations. But even before Minihane recorded Curtatone, it was clear in some legal circles that the word “consent” was misleading. For instance, here is an explanation of the law published several years ago by the now-defunct Digital Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society:

Massachusetts’s wiretapping law often referred to is a “two-party consent” law. More accurately, Massachusetts makes it a crime to secretly record a conversation, whether the conversation is in-person or taking place by telephone or another medium…. Accordingly, if you are operating in Massachusetts, you should always inform all parties to a telephone call or conversation that you are recording, unless it is absolutely clear to everyone involved that you are recording (i.e., the recording is not “secret”). Under Massachusetts’s wiretapping law, if a party to a conversation is aware that you are recording and does not want to be recorded, it is up to that person to leave the conversation.

Even after Monday’s SJC ruling, the law in Massachusetts remains unusually strict. According to the law firm Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, 38 states plus the District of Columbia merely have a “one-party consent” law. Since the person making the recording has obviously given their consent, that means recording someone secretly in those states is legally permissible.

I tell my students that if they want to record an interview, whether in person or by phone, to ask for the subject’s consent. Then, after they turn on their recorder, tell them that they’re now recording and ask if that’s all right. That way, not only do they have the interview subject’s permission, but they have that permission on record. Minihane’s victory doesn’t change the ethics of recording someone without their knowledge.

One aspect of Monday’s ruling worth thinking about is that two-party consent, even under a looser definition of “consent,” can make it harder to engage in certain types of investigative reporting. Minihane obviously was just recording Curtatone for entertainment purposes. But undercover reporting, though less common than it used to be (thanks in part to the Food Lion case), can be a crucial tool in holding the powerful to account.

In Massachusetts, it remains illegal for a reporter to secretly record someone. The SJC’s decision doesn’t change that.

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It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.

We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.

Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:

• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.

• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.

“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”

Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”

In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.

Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.

But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.

President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.

But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.

We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.

No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.

Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.

In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.

Michigan legislator files bill to register fact-checkers

You can’t make this up. The Detroit News reports:

A Michigan lawmaker who’s been at the center of efforts to question the 2020 election introduced a bill Tuesday that would require “fact checkers” to register with the state.

Fact-checkers would be required to post $1 million bond. Needless to say, the bill is unconstitutional.

The legislator in question is Rep. Matt Maddock, a Republican, who also proposed impeaching Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the COVID-19 restrictions she implemented.

There he goes again: Why DeSantis’ Fox News stunt may be unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.

What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

March 30, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

Salem mayor calls for the Legislature to be covered by the open meeting law

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. Photo (cc) 2020 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.

Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise on a Monday morning. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has written an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe calling for an end to the state Legislature’s exemption from the open meeting law — a law that requires virtually all city and town boards and many state commissions to conduct their business in public. It’s a bit too late for Sunshine Week, but we’ll take it. Driscoll writes:

If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.

Driscoll also notes that Massachusetts is one of only 11 states whose legislature is exempt from open meeting laws.

Similarly, the Legislature and the courts are exempt from the state’s public records law, and a succession of governors, including Charlie Baker, have claimed that their immediate staff is exempt as well.

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Last fall, our Northeastern journalism students contacted all 257 candidates for House and Senate seats and asked them whether they would support ending that exemption. Sadly, only 71 responded despite repeated emails and phone calls; but of those who did respond, 72% said they favored applying the public records law to the Legislature.

As with the open meeting law, Massachusetts is an outlier: it is one of only four states whose public records laws do not cover legislative proceedings.

The central argument Driscoll offers is unassailable. If cities, towns and state agencies can comply with the open meeting and public records laws, so, too, can the Legislature. It’s long past time to drag the proceedings of the Great and General Court out into the sunlight.