By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: First Amendment Page 3 of 7

Murphy (remember him?) is reprimanded

The gate’s still open, the horses escaped ages ago and the barn has burned down to the ground.

Nevertheless, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, at long last, ruled today that Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy committed an ethical violation by sending threatening letters on official stationery to Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell after winning a libel suit against the Herald.

I have written about this case so many times that I can’t muster the passion to do it again. Robert Ambrogi offers a few highlights as well as a link to the full decision. And here’s some Media Nation background.

Chuck Turner trashes the First Amendment

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner may or may not end up doing time. But if the indicted councilor has his way, local journalists — including Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe, Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix and Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald — will be subject to legal sanctions for failing to presume that Turner is innocent.

On Friday, the Herald’s Ed Mason reported that Turner had sent a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick asking that a task force be appointed that would investigate “collusion” between federal prosecutors and the media.

Over the weekend, John Guilfoil, the founder and editor of the online magazine Blast, posted the full text of Turner’s screed. In it, Turner calls for nothing less than the abolition of the First Amendment. Guilfoil, a former student of mine, writes, “Five words, Councilor: ‘Congress shall make no law.'”

Turner, in case you’ve forgotten, is under federal indictment, charged with taking cash bribes in connection with the Dianne Wilkerson case.

Tellingly, Turner cites Deuteronomy, the Quran, the Roman Code, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in his argument to muzzle the press, yet makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the First Amendment, which clearly states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Subsequent amendments, as well as Supreme Court decisions, have broadened “Congress” to include all governmental bodies at the federal, state and local levels.)

Turner blasts columns by Vennochi, Reilly and Fitzgerald, saying they have “unashamedly proclaimed my guilt.” He also claims that Globe columnist Adrian Walker’s interview with Ron Wilburn, the cooperating government witness, is proof that the FBI’s affidavit against Turner is full of lies (not how I would interpret it). And Turner includes this tantalizing tidbit:

Even Howie Carr, self proclaimed protector of the public good and verbal slayer of public officials who betray their trust has not even mumbled one word about the fact that the US Attorney’s wire is making accusations against him.

Really? Does anyone know what Turner is referring to? The ball’s in your court, Howie.

Not to save the best part for last, but Turner closes by recommending legal sanctions against journalists who discuss “the ‘evidence’ in the court of public opinion before it has been presented in a court of law,” including:

  • “State legal policy should be significantly reformed to promote respect for the presumption of innocence among state officials, mass media representatives, and citizens.”
  • “Mass media outlets must be prohibited from spreading information that conflicts with the presumption of innocence.”

Now, let me move on to the fallacy at the heart of Turner’s proposal to round up journalists and send them to re-education camp. Yes, the legal system is required to presume that Turner is innocent unless it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not. But the media are under no such constraints.

Turner is free to avail himself of the libel laws if he believes a journalist has said something about him that is false, defamatory and, as he is a public official, made with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. And there are circumstances in which the courts will intervene by way of gag orders on the lawyers in order to balance the First Amendment with the Sixth, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

But this is not North Korea, or even Britain, where the press has far fewer protections than it does in the United States. (I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions with my editor at the Guardian, whose home office is in Manchester, England.) In the U.S., everyone is free to speak and write the truth as he or she sees it.

By the way, I am willing to grant Turner the presumption of innocence. Taking cash from a supplicant shows incredibly poor judgment, but let’s wait and see if it adds up to a criminal act. (Although I was unimpressed by Turner’s claim that the photo might have been doctored — a subject with which Turner has some passing familiarity.)

Regardless of whether Turner is guilty of bribe-taking, though, he has already convicted himself of holding freedom of the press in utter contempt.

Taking photos in a public place

The man at the center of an alleged bribery case in Methuen wants the Eagle-Tribune to be punished for photographing him as he was leaving a hearing.

It seems that Michael Neve had managed to persuade the Civil Service Commission that no one should be allowed to photograph him during or after a hearing at which he testified to having offered a $15,000 bribe to Mayor William Manzi. (Neve says Manzi refused the bribe; Manzi says no bribe was offered. The case actually involves someone else. Never mind.)

But Neves miscalculated in his definition of the word “after.” The newspaper, logically enough, decided “after” did not pertain to taking pictures of Neve after he’d left the building.

“The press can take photographs from a public place,” Eagle-Tribune lawyer and friend of Media Nation Robert Bertsche is quoted as saying.

Chuck Turner, open government advocate

I explain how at the First Amendment Blog.

The president and the Boss

A radio station needn’t obtain advance permission before playing a particular song by a particular musician. Same with a nightclub. Under copyright law, you’re free to play copyrighted music as long as you pay a fee.

That goes for politicians, too. In today’s Washington Post, Christopher Sprigman and Siva Vaidhyanathan explain why musicians such as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the Foo Fighters and others have no legal basis in objecting to the McCain campaign’s use of their songs. The campaign, they note, has paid its licensing fees, and that should be the end of it. (Via Altercation.)

It’s a free-speech issue, and, as such, we should be just as vigilant against Jackson Browne’s attempt to censor the Republicans as we are about, say, Sarah Palin’s redefinition of freedom of the press as a “privilege.”

The man who wrote the book on how to respond to an unwanted political embrace was Bruce Springsteen. In 1984, Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, gave a shoutout to Springsteen, whose “Born in the U.S.A.” had set off a boomlet of patriotic fervor. Though in actuality it was a bitter antiwar anthem, the upbeat music had confused more than a few conservatives into thinking Bruce had cast his lot with the “Morning in America” crowd.

Shortly thereafter, Springsteen, at a concert in Pittsburgh, introduced his song “Johnny 99” — about an unemployed auto worker-turned-murderer — with this:

The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

And that was the end of that. (Wikipedia reference verified by my steel-trap memory.)

Update: Looks like some news organizations are pushing an overly restrictive interpretation of copyright law, too — even going so far as to demand that YouTube delete some McCain ads that use news clips.

Photo (cc) by Music Master and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. And in case you were wondering, yes, that’s a wax figure, not the real Bruce.

Palin calls freedom of press a “privilege”

All right, I am assuming far more coherence and meaning in Sarah Palin’s ramblingly incoherent interview with Fox’s Carl Cameron than is warranted. But I do want to call your attention to this amazing passage, flagged by Jake Tapper of ABC News:

As we send our young men and women overseas in a war zone to fight for democracy and freedoms, including freedom of the press, we’ve really got to have a mutually beneficial relationship here with those fighting the freedom of the press, and then the press, though not taking advantage and exploiting a situation, perhaps they would want to capture and abuse the privilege. We just want truth, we want fairness, we want balance.

To which I say: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Thanks to Media Nation reader MTS, who found it on Daily Kos.

Exposing the T’s ludicrous photo ban

Now that the MBTA has fired a trolley driver because a passenger photographed him letting two kids take the wheel, do you suppose the T will reconsider its no-longer-official prohibition on allowing people to take pictures?

Marie Szaniszlo reports in the Boston Herald today that the unidentified Green Line driver was photographed while his young son and nephew were playing with the controls. The photos were taken by Michael Critz, who posted them on Craigslist. “I don’t take any joy in the firing of the driver,” Critz is quoted as saying.

No mention in the Herald story of the photo ban, but it’s well-known to local photographers. In 2006, I gave a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award to the T for its ridiculous policy, which is supposedly aimed at thwarting terrorists.

The practice is inconsistently employed, does nothing to address surreptitious or long distance photographs of the same sites, and restricts the rights of law-abiding persons,” wrote John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, and Jonathan Albano, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, in a letter to the T several years ago. Reinstein and Albano further argued that the ban violates both the federal and state constitutions.

Not only did the T not overturn its censorious policy [sort of; see below], but it continues to enforce it. Only yesterday, Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub linked to some T photos taken by Carolyn Serrano, who writes on her Flickr page:

I actually got in trouble taking this photo! I was leaning against the pole to brace myself as I took this shot (imagine, no flash in a dim setting…that’s a couple secs that I needed to stay absolutely still which is super hard for me!) and on the speakers they were making announcements about how photos were not allowed. I disregarded it, thinking no way were they talking about me. But they kept on re-iterating it and stopped only when I put my camera away!

The MBTA is our property, paid for with our tax dollars and fare money. Despite no-photo policy, there are 7,391 photos on Flickr tagged with “mbta” right now. So not only is the policy a violation of the First Amendment, but it’s not working. It’s time for T general manager Dan Grabauskas repeal this misguided assault on our free-speech rights.

Update: Adam Gaffin tells Media Nation that the T actually softened its policy (PDF) more than a year ago, but that employees still haven’t gotten the message. “Naturally, nobody at the top seems to have communicated this with employees, who continue to harass people,” Gaffin says.

Photo (cc) by Brian Talbot and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Whose privacy is being protected?

Over at the New England First Amendment Center‘s blog, I’ve got a post on an interesting case involving the town of Nantucket. It seems that local officials wanted to keep a severance agreement under wraps — in order, they said, to protect the privacy of an employee they’d fired.

The local weekly, the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, filed a complaint, and last week the state ruled that the agreement must be made public.

As it turns out, the ex-employee was only too happy to tell her story. And, as is often the case, when government officials invoke privacy, what they’re really trying to do is avoid embarrassment for themselves.

First Amendment Center at Northeastern

The Associated Press reports on the launch of the New England First Amendment Center, founded by the New England First Amendment Coalition, Northeastern’s School of Journalism and the Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Northeastern’s coordinator, Walter Robinson, explains that the center will focus on ensuring access to public records, telling the AP: “Most of the people that reporters and citizens deal with who have the information — they are not up on the law — and if people understood the law better, if we had better public education on this, then we would have better compliance.”

Adds Steve Burgard, director of the J-school: “We hope a center like this for many people will be place where they can go to learn what the law is and how they can use it.”

The center’s Web site includes a blog, to which I’ll contribute occasionally.

Here is the official announcement.

Turning the First Amendment on its head

Robert Ambrogi has posted a 36-page section of the report ordered up by the Boston City Council as part of its crusade to get out of having to comply with the state’s open-meeting law.

It’s hard to make out and I haven’t had a chance to go through it yet. But Ambrogi’s comments are on the mark, especially with respect to the councilors’ argument that the law impinges upon their own First Amendment rights:

How does that saying go about the devil reading the Bible to his own ends? That was all I could think of as I read a report arguing that the First Amendment gives Boston city councilors the right to conduct the people’s business behind closed doors….

The … premise is that this “prohibition” on private speech between public officials violates their free-speech rights. That is the most extreme contortion of the First Amendment I’ve ever heard or read.

Ambrogi concludes with a hope that councilors will send the report “straight to the circular file.” But that’s only going to happen if the press and the public pressures them to do so.

The original Boston Herald story made it pretty clear that some influential members, including president Maureen Feeney and former president Michael Flaherty, think weakening the public’s right to know is a neat idea.

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