Presenting the 13th annual Phoenix Muzzle Awards

Just in time for your Fourth of July celebrations, we present the 13th annual Muzzle Awards, published in the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Portland and Providence.

Starting in 1998, I’ve been rounding up enemies of free speech and personal liberties in New England, based on news reports over the previous year. For the past several years my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate has been writing a sidebar about free speech and the lack thereof on campus.

Yes, Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department makes the list for his failure to understand that you shouldn’t arrest someone who’s done nothing wrong other than mouth off to you in his own home. So does former Newton mayor David Cohen, who should not seek a second career as a newspaper editor. So does the MBTA, a hardy perennial.

But my personal favorite is the Portland Press Herald, whose editorial page came out in support of a proposal by the Falmouth Town Council to clamp down on the right of residents to speak out at council meetings. When the council itself unanimously voted against the proposal several weeks later, citing free-speech concerns, the newspaper found itself in the bizarre position of showing less regard for the First Amendment than elected officials.

On Friday at 9 p.m., I’ll join Dan Rea of WBZ Radio (AM 1030) to talk about the Muzzles and anything else that might come up.

In Cambridge, a dubious balancing act

I have not yet read the report of the Cambridge Review Committee, which investigated last July’s arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. But unless someone tells me otherwise, I’m not sure I need to — the bottom line is enough.

According to news accounts, the committee found that both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, were to blame, and that each man missed opportunities to “de-escalate” the situation, which ended when Gates was arrested on disorderly-conduct charges. Those charges were quickly dismissed.

The only thing that strikes me as worth saying — again — is that Gates clearly lost it that day. But he was standing in his own home, believing (probably falsely) that he was the victim of racial profiling. Crowley had a badge, a gun and the certain knowledge that Gates was the resident, not an intruder.

Both men are not to blame. Crowley should have left.

Martin Finucane of the Boston Globe covers the story here, and Laura Crimaldi of the Boston Herald catches up with Gates’ lawyer, Harvard Law school professor Charles Ogletree.

Earlier coverage.

“Contempt of cop” and the Gates case

When Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct inside his own home in Cambridge last July, the incident struck many of us as being less about race than about the right of someone who had done nothing wrong to mouth off to a police officer.

Now comes the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which has a story in today’s Boston Globe showing that what happened to Gates was part of a pattern in Cambridge. Though the center found no evidence of racial profiling, it did find that the majority of people charged with disorderly conduct from 2004 to ’09 were arrested because of something they said. A key excerpt:

The most striking conclusion of the review of Cambridge police data is that the majority of those arrested for disorderly conduct were allegedly yelling, often screaming obscenities, in front of police before the handcuffs snapped shut. More than 60 percent of the disorderly arrests reviewed by center involved some sort of allegedly inflammatory speech, such as talking back to the police, more commonly known as “contempt of cop.’’

Gates, as you recall, was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley, who had been dispatched to Gates’ home following a report that two men had been seen trying to force their way in. (Gates and his taxi driver had forced open a stuck door.) Gates, apparently believing he’d been racially profiled, exchanged words with Crowley, though the two disagree over exactly what was said.

We’re still waiting to hear why Crowley wrote in his report that a witness told him at the scene that two black men were observed trying to get in. The woman later said she made no mention of race when she called the police station, and that she never spoke directly with Crowley, as he claimed. Perhaps that will be explained in a report by a city task force, which, according to the Cambridge Chronicle, could be released any day now.