Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
With freedom of speech under unprecedented assault, it is heartening that young people get what’s at stake. Two of our 2019 New England Muzzle Awards single out high school principals who tried to silence their students — and wound up being taken to school about the true meaning of the First Amendment.
In Burlington, Vermont, students were forced to remove from their school newspaper’s website an unflattering story about one of their guidance counselors. They fought back, won, and received an award from the New England First Amendment Coalition, which recognized their efforts on behalf of a free press.
In Epping, New Hampshire, a freshman decided to take part in her school’s “America Day” celebration by wearing a red, white, and blue T-shirt that said “Trump: Make America Great Again.” Her principal ordered her to cover it up, which led to a public outcry, an apology, and an acknowledgment that she had a right to express herself as she chose.
The Muzzles are published around the Fourth of July every year to call attention to outrages against freedom of speech and of the press. This year’s round-up covers a wide range of offenders — from the police chief in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose officers arrested a reporter covering a Black Lives Matter demonstration, to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration slapped a gag order on (get this) the state ornithologist. Other recipients include former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Rhode Island Division of Taxation, for playing literary critic in its enforcement of a tax exemption.
Our awards come at a time of great peril for the First Amendment. At the behest of President Trump, the U.S. government has charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the World War I-era Espionage Act for publishing secret documents stolen by former Army private Chelsea Manning. Assange may be an unsavory character, and he certainly was not a traditional journalist even in the years before WikiLeaks intervened in the 2016 election on behalf of Russian interests. But, as Margaret Sullivan argues in The Washington Post, it is virtually impossible to draw a constitutional distinction between what he did in the Manning case and what The New York Times and The Washington Post do when they work with sources such as Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden. Going after Assange could set a dangerous precedent.
Moreover, just a few months ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that his fellow justices should revisit Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 libel case that protects news organizations from lawsuits by public officials (and, later, public figures) who would would like nothing better than to sue them into oblivion because of inadvertent errors. Times v. Sullivan freed the press to pursue stories like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and it remains an essential safeguard for investigative journalism.
The Muzzle Awards, launched in 1998, were published for many years by the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the seventh 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.
Bridgeport police chief’s officers detain reporter for doing her job
When protesters took to the streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, one evening in early May, their goal was to call attention to the death of Jayson Negron, an unarmed 15-year-old who had been fatally shot by a police officer in a Walgreens parking lot two years earlier.
Among those on hand for the protest was Tara O’Neill, a reporter with Hearst Connecticut Media. She had come to cover the demonstration. Instead, she found herself recording a video of her own arrest and posting it on Twitter. Even though she was reportedly wearing a press badge, she was handcuffed and detained for about a half-hour before being released. She was not charged; apparently the police realized at some point that journalism is not a crime.
“This is a public sidewalk and I’m the press,” O’Neill later recalled telling the officer who arrested her. “He said, ‘OK,’ and cuffed me.”
The Muzzle for this malicious act goes to Police Chief Armando Perez. The chief leads a department whose officers think nothing of removing a reporter from the scene of a demonstration so they can crack down on protesters free from the eyes of the press.
“Tara O’Neill is a dedicated reporter who is well-known to Bridgeport police and police leadership,” Matt DeRienzo, vice president of news and digital content for Hearst Connecticut Media, was quoted as saying. “There’s no chance this was a case of mistaken identity. They arrested a reporter while she was doing her job.”
O’Neill’s arrest drew condemnation from free-press advocates. “The fact that someone can be arrested in Bridgeport for the lawful exercise of a First Amendment right is chilling,” said Bruno Matarazzo, president of the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In a letter to Chief Perez and Mayor Joseph Ganim, Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added, “While responsible law enforcement is crucial to the well-being of our communities, so is journalism. There is simply no excuse for a journalist to be arrested for doing her job.”
Gov. Charlie Baker
The state ornithologist is muzzled, shining new light on an old, censorious policy
One Saturday evening in mid-May, The Boston Globe published a story by its environmental reporter, David Abel, about the fate of barn swallows. Abel reported on a mini-controversy — federal officials wanted to demolish a rickety barn at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge that was home to the state’s largest colony of the birds.
Abel’s article included this tidbit: “Baker administration officials declined to allow the state ornithologist to comment, following a pattern of refusing to allow many state scientists to speak to the Globe. State officials acknowledged, however, that the swallows are experiencing ‘a long-term decline.’”
Seriously? Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration had muzzled the state ornithologist? It seemed absurd — so much so that Abel wrote a follow-up on Baker’s policy of not letting state scientists speak to reporters on the record. Invariably, he said, requests to interview scientists are answered with talking points from press spokespersons.
“The response I nearly always receive from the administration — as do many of my colleagues — is a self-serving statement with background bullet points,” Abel wrote. “Rarely do the answers address my questions.” Or as Abel was quoted as telling his fellow Globe staffer Felice Freyer in a post she wrote for the blog Covering Health: “This was a story about f***ing birds.”
To be fair to Baker, the policy is not new with his administration, and it extends beyond state-employed scientists — and far beyond Massachusetts. Elected officials like to maintain tight control of information. From their perspective, it’s better to force reporters to deal with media relations staff experienced at the art of not really saying anything than to connect them with unpredictable experts.
“The Public Information Officer is a frequently obstructive mechanism thinly veiled by a helpful sounding title,” wrote Cinnamon Janzer recently in the Columbia Journalism Review. “PIO-approved comments shape the narratives of their news coverage across the country on matters that range from the mundane to the extremely consequential.”
How bad is it? Janzer cited a 2015 study that showed more than 74 percent of science journalists “were routinely required to get approval from PIOs to interview employees some, most, or all of the time.”
As Abel reported, in Massachusetts that approval is rarely granted.
The absurdity exposed by Abel may not have originated with Baker. But it’s vital that reliable information about important issues be communicated to the public rather than having it filtered and fuzzed-up through the state’s various press offices. Until Baker fixes it, he owns it.
Exeter Police Department
Shades of John Peter Zenger: An internet troll is charged with criminal libel
By all accounts, Robert Frese is one of those cranks who are the bane of online discussion boards, spewing venom indiscriminately at those he thinks have done him wrong. He reportedly referred to a life coach as a molester and a drug dealer. More recently, he called an Exeter police officer “corrupt” and a perjurer, and claimed the police chief was a coward who had “covered up for a dirty cop.”
What makes Frese unusual is that he has been charged twice under a New Hampshire law that defines libel under some circumstances as a misdemeanor criminal offense. For this gross overreaction to harsh criticism, the Exeter Police Department in New Hampshire has earned a Muzzle.
If you have given any thought to libel, you probably assumed that the days of charging someone with a crime for publishing defamatory statements about government officials went out nearly 300 years ago with the acquittal of John Peter Zenger. In fact, though, about half the states still have criminal libel laws on their books. And no less a First Amendment advocate than Eugene Volokh believes the New Hampshire statute is constitutional.
Nevertheless, the ACLU of New Hampshire is mounting a challenge in federal court, arguing that such laws “violate the First Amendment, give the public far too little guidance on what may constitute a crime, and give law enforcement far too much discretion in deciding whom to prosecute.”
The state attorney general, Gordon MacDonald, dismissed the case, arguing that Frese actually believes what he wrote, and that the law pertains only to statements that are made with the knowledge that they are false. But the ACLU counters that Frese should be allowed to proceed with his legal challenge on the grounds that he could face the same charge again. “Mr. Frese reasonably fears that his continued criticism of law enforcement and government officials, including officials in the Exeter Police Department, will result in future prosecutions,” according to the ACLU’s lawsuit.
The Frese matter is odd enough that it has been the subject of stories in both The New York Times and The Atlantic. And not just odd. The New Hampshire law, and similar laws elsewhere, amount to seditious libel, making it a crime to criticize the government. The courts should overturn this once and for all, both here and across the country.
Holyoke, Scituate and Wellesley
Attempts to censor political signs run head-long into the First Amendment
What is it about municipalities and political signs? The courts have ruled over and over that messages with political content deserve the highest degree of First Amendment protection. Yet that hasn’t stopped local officials from trying to regulate or ban them. This year, our sign-related Muzzles go to the city of Holyoke and the towns of Scituate and Wellesley. If we have overlooked any other municipalities, our apologies.
According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Holyoke City Council last October passed a ban on “temporary” lawn signs during the winter months and prohibited bumper stickers year-round, overriding a veto by Mayor Alex Morse. The ACLU noted that the ordinance theoretically could have banned not just signs favoring one candidate or another but also those saying “Black Lives Matter” or “All Are Welcome Here.” Not surprisingly, with the help of the Boston law firm Prince Lobel, the ordinance was thrown out in federal district court.
Similarly, members of the select board in Scituate agreed to suspend their own sign ordinace after they received a letter from the ACLU informing them that the bylaw violated the First Amendment. The Scituate ordinance restricted political signs to 30 days before an election and mandated that they be removed within three days after.
In Wellesley, a poet named Dan Chiasson ran afoul of town officials after he put up a self-designed “Impeach Trump” banner on his house. According to The Boston Globe, he was told that the banner was too large and too high up, and that he would be fined $300 a day if he didn’t take it down. The Wellesley Townsman reported that Chiasson tweeted out the certified letter he received and asked, “Do you really want to try to enforce this?”
The answer: No, not really. In a statement, the town said that it was “prepared to review its bylaw to ensure that it complies with recent Federal Court decisions on political signs.”
Former Maine governor hides Trump-related spending until after he leaves office
What would the New England Muzzle Awards be without an appearance by Paul LePage? He won on several occasions when he was governor of Maine. Now he can claim his first post-gubernatorial statuette.
According to the Portland Press Herald, receipts that the newspaper obtained as the result of a public documents request show that the then-governor and his staff stayed in more than 40 rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington over the course of two years, spending around $22,000 in tax money. Rooms ranged from $362 to more than $1,000.
Now what, you might ask, does this have to do with the Muzzles? Very simple: LePage refused to comply with Maine’s public records law when he was governor, so the Press Herald was unable to obtain these receipts until after he had left office.
And lest you think this is nothing more than a gotcha story about public officials’ running up the tab while on state business, it turns out that the LePage administration’s high living may be used as evidence in a federal lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C. Their suit claims that President Trump has violated the “emoluments” clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the president from personally benefiting as a result of spending by foreign or domestic government officials. Indeed, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte specifically cited LePage’s spending as a reason for why he was allowing the lawsuit to proceed. (LePage responded by calling the judge an “imbecile.”)
LePage has hated the news media for years. As governor, LePage said, among other things, that he’d like to blow up the Press Herald and shoot a cartoonist for the Bangor Daily News. Thanks to the Press Herald’s work in documenting LePage’s entanglements with President Trump’s business empire, his attitude about the press is unlikely to improve now that he’s out of office.
Mass. House court officers
Overzealous enforcement of a ban on photos interferes with accurate reporting
Four years ago we awarded a Muzzle to two court officers at the Massachusetts House of Representatives for manhandling two reporters and ordering them to leave a meeting of the Democratic caucus, even though members had not voted to close the doors. In a quote that became an instant classic, one of the officers reportedly said, “Why can’t you be a f***ing gentleman?”
You’d think that would be enough censorious action for a lifetime. But no. Once again, we are bestowing a Muzzle upon the House court officers, this time for flipping out when they caught WGBH News political reporter Mike Deehan taking a picture of the vote tally board. Deehan tweeted his out-of-focus effort and added:
It’s a serious issue. Not only is taking a photo of how members voted an accurate, fast way to take notes, but it could make for an interesting story if any votes were changed before the final tally. Needless to say, photos of legislators in action would also be newsworthy.
“It’s just a fantastically stupid and obstructionist rule,” Deehan said in an email. “The press is effectively banned from taking photos of any kind inside the Massachusetts House or Senate Chambers. … All photos, by the press, public or members themselves, are prohibited according to the House rules. Anyone who has ever seen a lawmaker’s social media knows that rule is never applied to members, only the press and public.”
Equally bad is the arbitrary nature of the way the rules are enforced. Deehan said he had permission from Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office to take pictures of the tally board, but the court officer who approached him seemed either unaware of it or uninterested. And, as was the case in 2015, the court officers occasionally bar reporters from meetings even when the members have not voted to go into executive (closed) session. One recent instance involving the House Ways and Means Committee led to an apology — but by then it was too late, as the meeting had gone uncovered.
The Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is not known for its transparency. But it’s long past time to drop the ridiculous ban on photos — and to make sure that the court officers do not exceed their authority by blocking the press from doing its job.
Rhode Island Division of Taxation
Officials tax nonfiction while exempting fiction. Or do they?
In 2013 the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law exempting writers, composers, and artists who sell their own work from the 7 percent sales tax if they live in the state. But the law left a question to be answered: Who was covered? And who wasn’t?
For writers, the answer apparently given by the state’s Division of Taxation was bizarre indeed: those who produce fiction and poetry are exempt. But those who write non-fiction are not covered and must pay the tax. Although it’s unclear exactly who came up with this interpretation, it is based on the idea that non-fiction does not meet the “original and creative” test written into the law.
Among those on the receiving end of this edict was Paul Caranci, a former member of the North Providence Town Council, former FBI undercover agent, and the author of books such as “Scoundrels: Defining Corruption Through Tales of Political Intrigue in Rhode Island.” According to The Providence Journal, Caranci “sits side-by-side at flea markets, craft fairs, farmers markets and book expos with writers exempt from the state sales tax, while his work is not.” As Caranci put it in an interview with NPR, “It’s a strange enforcement of the law.”
Last fall Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, wrote to the Division of Taxation and the State Council on the Arts only to be rebuffed by a response that was a model of bureaucratic vagueness. So the ACLU sued in federal court, arguing that it was impossible and unconstitutional for the government to try to make a distinction between fiction and poetry on the one hand and non-fiction books such as Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” on the other.
But wait. The Division of Taxation later issued a statement that said the ACLU had misinterpreted its rule, claiming that “the sale of a book by its author may qualify for a tax exemption whether the book is a work of fiction or non-fiction,” but that “the book must be a one-of-a-kind, limited edition work, and must not be created or executed for industry-oriented, commercial or related production.”
The ACLU’s Brown, though, says that clearly contradicts the testimony gathered in the course of researching the lawsuit — such as that of Caranci, a plaintiff in the suit, who was told by the state that he had to charge sales tax. Another plaintiff, Steven Porter, said he had been granted an exemption for his fiction but was told he had to charge sales tax for his non-fiction books.
In a statement, Brown said, “The state’s post hoc denial that it has treated fiction and non-fiction books differently flies in the face of the evidence presented in our lawsuit and the unwavering testimony of local authors. Their new claim that they instead grant the exemption for only ‘one-of-a-kind, limited edition works’ flies in the face of the evidence concerning the many clearly non-limited-edition fiction books that have qualified for an exemption. The state’s muddled rationales only highlight the importance of our First Amendment claims.”
Principal tells a Trump-supporting freshman to cover up her #MAGA T-shirt
Students at Epping High School in New Hampshire were encouraged to don the red, white and blue this past April for what was dubbed “America Day.” Ciretta MacKenzie, a freshman, was excited to take part. But her choice of attire — a T-shirt that said “Trump: Make America Great Again” — did not meet the approval of school authorities.
Ciretta was called to the front office, where the principal, Brian Ernest, told her that the message was divisive and that she would have to cover it up. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Ernest sent an email to Ciretta’s mother in which he “explained that we need to separate political views from patriotism. In today’s climate it is important to not mix church or state.”
For better or worse, Donald Trump is the president. And so, as you might expect, all hell broke loose over Ernest’s act of censorship. School Superintendent Valerie McKenney ordered an investigation. Ernest, to his credit, quickly realized his mistake and issued a public apology. “In retrospect, I want to fully acknowledge my error in judgment and sincerely apologize if my actions were misinterpreted and offended anyone,” he said, according to CBS Boston. “That was never my intention.”
Ciretta turned out to be a forgiving soul. At a school board meeting to discuss the incident that was attended by about 150 people, she said she accepted Ernest’s apology, adding, “I do respect my principal. Even though I do not agree with the decision he made, I do still love him and I do still believe in giving people second chances. I’m very proud of our whole entire community, that everyone can come together and not be angry and not be haters.”
Thanks to the mature reaction of school officials, Trump supporters, and a high school freshman, the situation was resolved amicably. But Ciretta MacKenzie never should have been humiliated by her principal for expressing her First Amendment views. School officials need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Massachusetts State Police
From destroying and suppressing public records to spying on motorists
In January 2018, the Massachusetts State Police were in the midst of an internal audit into possible overtime abuse. Among the records needed to conduct that audit were traffic citations, which could be used to prove whether state troopers turned in fraudulent documents so they could collect overtime and hide the fact that they were not actually working.
Yet, as Matt Rocheleau reported in The Boston Globe recently, the agency destroyed several years’ worth of traffic records — documents that are now needed as part of a federal investigation so serious that U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf recently asked prosecutors why they were not considering building an organized-crime case under the RICO laws.
State Police spokesman David Procopio told the Globe that the destruction was routine and that the agency at that time had not been informed of any criminal investigation — even though the documents were relevant to the internal audit that was already under way. Procopio’s reasoning did not impress former state inspector general Gregory Sullivan, who was quoted as telling the Globe, “Wow. I’m dumbfounded about hearing this. This is blatant, outrageous, and worse than the underlying crime. It’s 10 times more serious.”
The destruction of records deserves a Muzzle because not only does it hamper an investigation into serious wrongdoing, but it also deprives the press and the public of important information. But it was only one in a series of actions by the State Police against freedom of information and civil liberties during the past year.
Last October, the website MassLive reported that the State Police had defied an order from the secretary of state’s office to release the audio of a 911 call — a public record — related to a quadruple homicide in West Brookfield.
In March, the Cape Cod Times reported that the State Police were secretly recording the license plates of every motor vehicle that travels across the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, a practice whose constitutionality has been called into question in a drug case. The Globe published a follow-up, and earlier this month it was reported that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will take up the issue.
The First Amendment is grounded in the idea that the public’s business should be conducted in public. All too often, though, the State Police — the commonwealth’s leading law-enforcement agency — acts like it is above the law.
Students teach their principal a lesson in freedom of the press
Four students from The Register, the student newspaper at Burlington High School in Vermont, stepped forward this past February to receive a Special Recognition Award at the annual meeting of the New England First Amendment Coalition. The students had made use of public records in reporting a story about disciplinary charges that had been filed against their guidance counselor.
It was a proud moment. But what had brought them to Boston that day wasn’t their enterprising journalism — it was their courage in standing up to their interim principal, Noel Green, who had ordered that their entirely accurate story be removed from The Register’s website.
The students fought back. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, they said they went along with deleting the story in order to protect their faculty adviser. But they didn’t stop there. They contacted the Student Press Law Center in Washington, which informed them that school officials were violating a Vermont law aimed at protecting student journalists from censorship.
Retired Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who is first vice president of the New England Coalition and president of the Vermont Press Association, praised The Register’s story, saying in an interview with his old paper, “There was no interpretation or slant. They wrote a factual report based on public documents.”
Ironically, the state law that ultimately led to the students’ victory had been enacted two years earlier after school authorities killed a story in The Register about a sign held up at a football game claiming facetiously that Burlington players were gang members or convicts. Without that law, the more recent controversy might have had a different outcome.
“This has been the biggest learning experience of our lives,” Julia Shannon-Grillo, one of the students who was honored last February, told the Free Press.
The award citation put it this way: “By appearing at city meetings, speaking to the media and working with press and First Amendment groups, the student journalists prevailed in their battle with the administration and reposted their story. The School Board appointed the editors to a special committee to review the school’s student publication policies to assure that they conform to state and federal law. As a result of the students’ efforts, Burlington High School now has an updated policy that is designed to prevent similar censorship in the future.”
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Also: Be sure not to miss Harvey Silverglate’s Campus Muzzles, his annual round-up of outrages against free speech at colleges and universities in New England.