Judge extends censorship in plastic-handgun case

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that prior restraint — censorship — was permissible only to prevent serious breaches of national security, incitement to violence, and the publication of obscenity. It was Near to which the court looked in 1971 when it ruled that The New York Times and The Washington Post could resume publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

Yet the rise of new doomsday technologies has put a crimp in Near. The latest example: efforts by a radical activist named Cody Wilson to publish blueprints on the internet describing how to use a 3D printer to produce an untraceable plastic gun. As I wrote for WGBH News several weeks ago, the case, based in Washington State, was reminiscent of one involving a left-wing magazine called The Progressive, which in 1979 sought to publish an article describing how to build a hydrogen bomb. In both instances, judges temporarily banned publication. The Progressive eventually published its article, and yet somehow we’re all still here.

Unfortunately U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik is allowing the muzzling of Wilson to drag on, ruling on Monday that the temporary restraining order he had put in place on July 31 would not be lifted until the case has been resolved. According to The New York Times, Lasnik ruled that Wilson’s First Amendment rights “are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn and that, over all, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation.”

And yet, the Times continues, the plans Wilson wants to publish are already leaking out here and there, thus showing the futility of censorship.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined the suit, is celebrating Judge Lasnik’s ruling. Healey, I should note, is a two-time winner of a New England Muzzle Award from WGBH News for her less-than-vigorous support of the First Amendment.

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The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s all about Trump. And so it should come as no surprise that the 2018 New England Muzzle Awards have taken on a distinctly orange hue, singling out — among other offenses — thuggish attempts by President Donald Trump and his minions to suppress speech they found embarrassing.

One of those coveted Muzzles is being presented to the president himself, who, through his lawyer, Michael Cohen, threatened a member of the Harvard Lampoon with expulsion over a harmless prank. The other goes to former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who raised the specter of a libel suit against a student who’d written a critical op-ed piece about The Mooch in the Tufts campus newspaper.

On a considerably lesser scale, former president Barack Obama should be on the lookout for a golden Muzzle in his mailbox as well. Earlier this year, Obama (or someone he was associated with) demanded that his remarks to several thousand people at a Boston conference on sports statistics, of all things, be kept off the record. Team Obama’s action was as absurd as it was inappropriate — and, as they learned, unenforceable as well.

Also: The 2018 Campus Muzzle Awards:
Four Institutions that Dishonored Freedom

Of course, the Muzzles encompass far more than presidential politics. This year’s winners range from Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans, who expressed unseemly pleasure that right-wing activists couldn’t be heard at a “Free Speech Rally” they had organized last August, to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose oft-stated commitment to open government is contradicted by her censorious interpretation of the state’s public-records law. For good measure, we single out two Rhode Island legislators who are pushing a priggish piece of legislation that has become known as the “internet porn tax.”

This year’s Muzzles are being awarded against a backdrop of fear and hatred whipped up by President Trump, whose cries of “fake news” have served to delegitimize the press among his followers and to undermine the First Amendment. Earlier this year it was learned that the White House had obtained the phone and email records of a New York Times journalist in secret, which denied her an opportunity to fight that order in court. More broadly, Trump triggered a humanitarian catastrophe with his policy of separating the families of undocumented immigrants when they try to enter the United States, calling into question the nation’s commitment to the rule of law. He eventually backed down, but the fate of the children who were taken away from their parents is still unclear — especially given his subsequent remark that undocumented immigrants should be turned away at the border without due process.

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 sixth 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. Continue reading “The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech”

New Hampshire official in spotlight won a Muzzle Award earlier this year

Illustration by Emily Judem of WGBH News

New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner, who has refused calls to resign from President Trump’s bogus voter-fraud commission, won a New England Muzzle Award from WGBH News earlier this year. His dubious achievement: continuing to fight against the scourge of ballot selfies, a form of free expression that several federal courts have ruled is protected by the First Amendment.

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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: Presenting the 2017 New England Muzzle Awards

Illustration by Emily Judem of WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The public square has long since gone private. As far back as 2003, we bestowed a New England Muzzle Award upon a mall that ordered a 60-year-old customer arrested and charged with trespassing because he refused to remove his antiwar T-shirt — a T-shirt he’d bought at said mall.

These days, though, the idea that privately owned shopping centers have superseded the village common seems almost quaint. The public square has gone virtual. Unaccountable internet companies control our discourse and censor our voices for reasons that can seem both absurd and mysterious.

We live in a time in which YouTube restricts access to a pro-Israel video made by the famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In which the Museum of Fine Arts’ Instagram account runs afoul of an anti-nudity rule that applies not just to pornography but to art. And in which the Boston Police Department proposes using sophisticated software to monitor our activities on social media — for our own good, of course. The BPD backed down, but you can be sure that won’t be the last we hear of it.

It seems somehow appropriate that on this, the 20th anniversary of the Muzzle Awards, assaults on freedom of expression are taking a technological turn. But there are still plenty of instances of old-fashioned suppression — such as a publicly funded charter school in Malden whose ban on hair extensions affects black female students almost exclusively; Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who has refused to turn over public records about his support for states seeking to discriminate against same-sex couples and transgender youth; and a New Hampshire publisher who censored information about his own newspaper’s real-estate dealings.

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 fifth 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.

YouTube: The Internet Giant Censors Videos By Alan Dershowitz And Others

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz’s staunchly pro-Israel views are well known. But if he had to rely on YouTube to spread his message, he might find himself crying in the wilderness.

Last October, Hiawatha Bray reported in The Boston Globe that educational videos featuring Dershowitz and several other speakers had been restricted by YouTube, an internet giant that, in turn, is owned by Google, an even larger internet giant. The videos were produced by Prager University, an educational service begun by Dennis Prager, a conservative radio talk-show host.

As Bray noted, none of the videos included any foul language, violence, or sexually explicit content. Nor could it be determined why they were suppressed. Had the videos somehow run afoul of Google’s notoriously opaque algorithms? Had someone flagged the content as objectionable?

Not that it was especially difficult to watch the videos. The content was blocked only for users who had turned on YouTube’s “restricted” mode, which, according to the website, “hides videos that may contain inappropriate content flagged by users and other signals.” All anyone would have to do is turn it off. Still, it sent a signal that there was something wrong with what Dershowitz and the others were saying.

In a follow-up piece for National Review, Prager wrote that 21 videos had originally been restricted, and that five had been restored. The topics included radical Islam, abortion rights, and a defense of police against charges of racism. “Obviously, … the explanation is not algorithms that catch violence and sex,” Prager wrote. “Rather, Google/YouTube doesn’t want effective (each video has at least 1 million views) conservative videos.”

He added that Dershowitz’s video “Israel’s Legal Founding” had been restored because of negative publicity. If it was, it was later blocked again — as I discovered when I tried accessing it in restricted mode recently.

Google, like Facebook, has enormous power and influence, and has become far more than a corporation with its own agenda and interests. It’s a place where we spend a significant amount of our lives. It’s long past time for Google to recognize its free-speech obligations.

Bill Evans: The BPD Commissioner’s Officers Choose Surveillance Over Liberty

In the never-ending struggle between security and liberty, it is the job of the Boston Police Department to err on the side of security. And it is our job to push back. Thus has Commissioner Bill Evans earned a Muzzle for allowing his officers to infringe on the free-expression rights of protesters.

According to The Boston Globe, this past March, members of an organization calling itself the Keep it Real 100 for Affordable Housing and Racial Justice showed up at a board meeting of the Boston Planning and Development Agency to complain about the lack of affordable housing in a development plan for the Forest Hills-Jackson Square area. Officers began video recording some of the protesters, creating what some witnesses said was an atmosphere of intimidation.

Officer Rachel Maguire, the BPD spokeswoman, compared the situation to the right that citizens have to record officers, and said such recording often takes place at large gatherings such as the Boston Marathon and outdoor demonstrations. Needless to say, though, there is a considerable power differential between police officers and citizens. Citizens recording officers simply cannot be compared to officers recording citizens. And a public meeting in City Hall is a very different matter from a huge outdoor gathering.

Fortunately, the BPD backed down from yet another attempt to monitor people exercising their right to free expression — a proposal to sift through people’s social-media activities, opposed by the ACLU of Massachusetts. But surveillance of activities protected by the First Amendment is no way to protect public safety. Evans needs to find a better solution.

Jim Konig: A Publisher Who Believes That All The News About His Newspaper Isn’t Fit To Print

A community newspaper has an obligation to be open and transparent about its operations. After all, the local paper often enjoys a near-monopoly on news. If its owners choose to suppress important information, there is virtually no other place to learn about it.

So when Roger Carroll, the executive managing editor of The Telegraph of Nashua, New Hampshire, resigned last fall, eyebrows were understandably raised. In a radio interview, Carroll told Nancy West, founder of the nonprofit news organization InDepthNH, that he quit after publisher Jim Konig ordered him to delete parts of a story about the paper’s move to new headquarters in downtown Nashua.

According to the print version of the article, The Telegraph’s new building was purchased for $650,000 and had an assessed value of $1.8 million. Those details, as well as the fact that the paper is owned by Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, West Virginia, were removed from the online version.

Carroll said Konig told him the order to delete those facts had come from West Virginia. But Konig wins the Muzzle, as he refused an opportunity to clarify matters when reached by InDepthNH and the New Hampshire Union Leader.

“I thought this kind of censorship showed a staggering disrespect to the role of the newsroom and to the Telegraph’s readers,” Carroll told West in a follow-up interview. Reached by the Union Leader, Carroll added, “It felt like censorship — that is what it felt like.”

Konig, meanwhile, has moved on, and Carroll is now working for Vermont’s Rutland Herald. “Leaving those folks behind was very hard,” Carroll told the investigative news site VTDigger about his decision to quit his job at The Telegraph. “But at the end of the day I had to be able to look in the mirror.”

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School: Its Prohibition Against Hair Extensions Is Racially Discriminatory

A school’s dress code includes a provision that is written in seemingly neutral language, but in practice affects black students while having little impact on white students. That’s discrimination, and it’s not a difficult concept to understand.

Unless you are part of the leadership at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter Schoolin Malden, which has grudgingly, and only temporarily, suspended its ban on hair extensions under pressure from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

The taxpayer-supported school, which serves Malden and several surrounding communities, has an extensive dress and grooming code that school officials say is aimed at preventing more affluent students from flaunting their wealth. But the families of some black female students argue that long braids, sometimes supplemented with extensions, are an expression of cultural pride.

Black students with long braids and dreads were taken to the office and inspected to see if they were wearing extensions. Punishment was meted out, including detention and suspension from activities such as athletics and the prom. White students with dyed hair were reportedly not subjected to such treatment. Despite Healey’s investigation, protests, and complaints from the ACLU and the NAACP, the school has backed down only partially and with great reluctance, displaying an unusually obtuse sense of racial insensitivity.

A letter released by the school after the trustees voted to suspend the policy read in part: “Some have asserted that our prohibition on artificial hair extensions violates a ‘cultural right,’ but that view is not supported by the courts, which distinguish between policies that affect a person’s natural ‘immutable’ characteristics and those that prohibit practices based on changeable cultural norms.”

As my “Beat the Press” colleague Callie Crossley recently wrote in criticizing Mystic Valley: “For black women, hair is a cultural flashpoint, never as simple as ‘it’s just hair.’ Those of us who wear our hair in afros, twists, locks or braids are often subject to unsolicited commentary, sometimes overtly racist.”

Free expression covers a wide variety of activities, including hair and dress. It would be bad enough if Mystic Valley’s policy were not racially discriminatory. But it is, and that makes it indefensible on any grounds.

Cardno ChemRisk: The SJC Sees Through Its Attempt To Use Libel As A Tool Of Intimidation

The libel laws are intended to give people and organizations a chance to fight back against false, defamatory statements. In the wrong hands, though, libel can be wielded by the powerful as weapon to harass critics.

Such was the situation that two environmental activists found themselves in after they wrote an unpaid article for The Huffington Post. The 2013 article, by Karen Savage, who at the time was a Boston middle-school teacher, and Cherrie Foytlin of Rayne, Louisiana, claimed that a controversial consulting company called Cardno ChemRisk had ties to the oil industry. Those ties, they said, compromised the company’s ability to conduct a study as to whether workers involved in the cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion were exposed to harmful levels of hazardous airborne substances.

ChemRisk wins a Muzzle Award for filing a libel suit against the two women — something The New York Times notes that it did not do even when tough reporting on the company by The Wall Street Journal in 2005 became a storyline in the environmental thriller “Erin Brockovich.” The Times article suggested that ChemRisk was more comfortable taking on two unknown activists than the powerful Journal, although a lawyer for the company denied it.

In February of this year the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threw out the lawsuit, essentially agreeing with the two women, who had invoked the state’s anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), that ChemRisk had sued solely in order to silence and intimidate them. According to the website Law360, the SJC ruled that ChemRisk’s claim was “devoid of reasonable factual support or arguable basis in law.”

Despite the victory, the lawsuit may have served its purpose by warning other activists of the consequences they might face if they take the risk of speaking up.

Bill Gardner: New Hampshire’s Secretary Of State Keeps The Absurd ‘Ballot Selfie’ Ban In The News

Who would have thought that we’d end up awarding two Muzzles in connection with a New Hampshire ban on “ballot selfies”? Yet the absurd law, under which you could be fined $1,000 for taking a photo of your completed ballot and posting it on social media, simply will not die.

In 2015 we gave a Muzzle to the prime mover behind the legislation. This year we are awarding the statuette to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals last fall and then, this past April, failed to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the case. Even that wasn’t enough to stop his crusade. “There are other ways to deal with this, and there are people across the country that are addressing this,” Gardner told New Hampshire Public Radio. Has anyone got a wooden stake?

A little background: In 2015 the Muzzle went to Timothy Horrigan, a Democratic state legislator from Durham, who pushed the ban as a way of preventing vote-buying and voter coercion — never mind that there hadn’t been any reported instances of ballot selfies being linked to those nefarious practices.

Selfie-posting voters protested, including State Representative Leon Rideout, a Lancaster Republican. The federal courts got involved. Rather than backing off, the state continued to fight for the law, none more ardently than Gardner.

Theoretically, the concerns raised by Horrigan, Gardner, and others could become reality. But there is no evidence that they have, and the courts do no look favorably upon abridgements of the First Amendment without having a very good reason. New Hampshire is not the only state to ban ballot selfies, so the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case could have national implications.

The appeals court’s ruling said in part: “New Hampshire may not impose such a broad restriction on speech by banning ballot selfies in order to combat an unsubstantiated and hypothetical danger. We repeat the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Paul LePage: Maine’s Governor Refuses To Release Records About His Right-Wing Crusades

You’d think that Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, would be proud to share information about assistance he gave to other states in their quest to squelch same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Apparently not. Because in May, the Portland firm Andrew Schmidt Law had to file a lawsuit under the state’s Freedom of Access statute following what it said was a failed six-month quest to obtain records related to LePage’s out-of-state political activism.

Also sought were records pertaining to LePage’s decision last fall to pull out of the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.

According to the Portland Press Herald, LePage supported Mississippi officials in their bid to overturn a federal judge’s ruling that public employees could not refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. LePage also signed on to a lawsuit filed by 10 states after the Obama administration ordered public schools to stop discriminating against transgender students with regard to bathroom and locker-room access.

LePage is a notorious homophobe. Last year The Advocate, an LGBT publication, posted some NSFW comments LePage made to a state legislator in which he defended himself against charges that he’s a racist by going off on a vicious gay-bashing rant.

As for the public records sought by Andrew Schmidt Law, Peter Mancuso, a lawyer with the firm, told the Press Herald that the governor’s office had not turned them over despite promising to do so by March. Nor did the LePage administration respond to several email requests from the paper seeking comment.

Instagram: The Museum Of Fine Arts Runs Afoul Of The Photo-Sharing App’s Ban On Nudity

YouTube is not the only internet behemoth upon whom we are bestowing a Muzzle Award. So is Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. As with YouTube and its parent company, Google, the Instagram example highlights the erosion of freedom that can occur when our public discourse is turned over to unaccountable corporations.

The Boston Globe’s Malcolm Gay reported in April that Instagram had removed three images of nude models posted by the Museum of Fine Arts to promote an exhibit of photographs by Imogen Cunningham. The images violated Instagram’s one-size-fits-all terms of service, which prohibit photos of female nipples. Similar cases involving the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were also reported.

“I’m stunned. These images are so subtle and beautiful and so abstract,” MFA photography curator Karen Haas told the Globe. “They’re all about shapes — about turning the body into something that’s really confounding and difficult even to read as a body.”

But though the Muzzle goes to Instagram, surely a Muzzle Jr. is in order for the Globe. Because the artwork it used to illustrate the story was itself a censored, G-rated version of Cunningham’s photos. As my “Beat the Press” colleague Emily Rooney ranted several days after the Globe’s story was published, “They ruined their own story by doing the exact same thing they were accusing Instagram of doing. It was embarrassing, I thought.”

New Haven Police Department: A Photojournalist Is Arrested And Charged Following ‘A Ten-Second Misunderstanding’

For years, police officers in New Haven have struggled with the idea that journalists and ordinary citizens have a First Amendment right to video-record and photograph their interactions with the public. In 2011 I accompanied Paul Bass, the editor and founder of the online New Haven Independent, as he covered a training session for officers following some egregious violations of citizens’ rights, which I wrote about in my book “The Wired City.”

Sadly, the New Haven Police Department still doesn’t get it. Last December, Independent reporter David Sepulveda was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors — interfering with police and third-degree trespassing — after he took photos of a pressure cooker suspected of being a bomb (it wasn’t) and didn’t vacate the scene quickly enough when ordered to do so.

“We recognize that police have legitimate concerns when setting a perimeter around a scene and urge journalists to respect those boundaries, but an arrest is extreme when less draconian remedies would have sufficed,” the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said in a statement.

In an opinion piece, Bass apologized and conceded that Sepulveda, 64, should have been more responsive and polite in his dealings with the police. But there was no excuse for their subsequent actions, which, according to Bass, included confiscating Sepulveda’s camera and attempting to seize its memory card; wrongly asserting that he had walked into a blocked-off area; and claiming that they didn’t know he was a reporter even though he was wearing a press tag around his neck. As Bass wrote, the police “turned a ten-second misunderstanding into a criminal charge.” He added: “The police had reason to be angry. They didn’t have good reason to handcuff, detain, and arrest a reporter.”

The officer who arrested Sepulveda and the supervisor who seized his camera were cleared by internal-affairs investigators. And so it goes — until the next time the city’s unchastened police encounter someone with a camera and an attitude.

Peter Kilmartin: Rhode Island’s Attorney General Clashes With Governor Over Revenge Porn And Curt Schilling

So-called revenge porn — sexually explicit photos posted on the internet as a form of harassment — is a serious offense. But Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has taken an unserious approach to dealing with it, filing a bill in 2016 so unconstitutionally broad that it was vetoed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, a fellow Democrat. He then turned around and filed it again.

According to The Westerly Sun, Raimondo objected to Kilmartin’s proposal because it “could also cover works of art that depict the human body. And unlike virtually all other similar state statutes, [the legislation] does not include basic safeguards such as the requirement that ‘intent to harass’ be demonstrated for conduct to be criminal.” Kilmartin, playing to the cheap seats, responded by saying “it is a disgrace that the Governor would put the interests of Hollywood elites before that of Rhode Island victims of this horrendous crime that has lifelong impact.”

But as Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, put it in an emailed comment, “These elites apparently include the ACLU, the RI Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the Media Coalition, all of  whom testified against his bill and in favor of hers. He would rather pass a bill that will end up providing no protection to victims because it will be struck down rather than agree to a ‘watered down’ constitutional one.”

Revenge porn is not the only issue over which Kilmartin and Raimondo have clashed. Raimondo has called for the release grand jury records involving the 38 Studios investigation, better known as the Curt Schilling debacle. Kilmartin objected, the Providence Journal reported, arguing that releasing “names and statements of cooperating witnesses” could “chill the willingness of witnesses to come forward to law enforcement in the future, particularly in cases of public corruption.”

Grand jury deliberations are traditionally kept secret. But in a friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU of Rhode Island laid out a compelling argument for why the Schilling case should be treated differently.

“Unlike a typical grand jury investigation involving allegations of private crime by private individuals,” the brief said in part, “the investigation of 38 Studios addressed a matter of public policy of extraordinary importance that involved the decision by the state to invest $75 million in public funds. In a well-functioning democracy, the people have a need to know how the state decides to spend public funds, and this need vastly outweighs any minimal interests in secrecy present here.”

Presenting the 19th annual New England Muzzle Awards

Illustration by Brendan Lynch/WGBH News
Illustration by Brendan Lynch/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

An elected school committee that voted unanimously to condemn a newspaper reporter for tweeting out news from a public meeting. A sheriff who flashed his badge while asking store owners to remove posters for his political opponent. Officials in three New England cities who cracked down on panhandlers in clear violation of their free-speech rights.

These are just three of the stories that are featured in the 19th annual New England Muzzle Awards, our Fourth of July roundup of outrages against free speech. All that and Donald Trump, too.

First, though, some good news. Last year we called for reform of the notoriously weak Massachusetts public-records law, which had earned an “F” from the State Integrity Project. At long last, the legislature passed a reform bill, which was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on June 3.

The most important part of the law is that, finally, people whose public-records requests are wrongly ignored or turned down may receive expense money to cover their legal fees. The law also puts limits on how much money government agencies can charge for records and mandates that those records be made available electronically when feasible.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,”said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, in a statement. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records.”

The law is far from perfect. It still applies only to local government and executive agencies, exempting the governor’s office, the court system, and the legislature. It also extends the amount of time government agencies have to respond to public-records requests—perhaps a reasonable step given how widely ignored the old deadlines were, but something that will have to be monitored.

Another Muzzle note: As we were wrapping up this year’s list, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed a bill outlawing the posting of so-called revenge porn. As Raimondo rightly observed, “The breadth and lack of clarity may have a chilling effect on free speech. We do not have to choose between protecting privacy rights and respecting the principles of free speech.” We’ll be keeping an eye on this to see if it raises its censorious head during the coming year.

The Muzzle Awards, launched in 1998, were published for many years in the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the fourth 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 …

Continue reading “Presenting the 19th annual New England Muzzle Awards”

Why NH’s ban on ballot selfies threatens free expression

Illustration by Brendan Lynch for WGBHNews.org.
Illustration by Brendan Lynch for WGBHNews.org.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The more absurd the law, the more difficult it can be to drive a wooden stake through its heart—all the more so when that law clashes with our First Amendment right to free expression.

And so it is with a New Hampshire statute that prohibits so-called ballot selfies, a self-indulgent genre that arose from our self-indulgent age. The idea is to vote, take a picture of yourself with your marked ballot, and then post it to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or any other social network of your choosing. Do it in the Granite State and you could be fined $1,000.

Last summer I bestowed a WGBH News Muzzle Award upon State Representative Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, for foisting this new form of digital harassment upon the public. I can’t stay I took it all that seriously. Mainly I thought it would make for a fun item to wedge in between more serious examples of censorship. And I certainly wasn’t surprised when, a month later, the law wasstruck down by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.

But the selfie ban won’t die. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner is now appealing it, and the matter is before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals—which means that if he wins, a similar ban in Massachusetts would continue to stand as well. So it’s time to take a closer look at why a law against taking pictures of ourselves and our ballots is a violation of our constitutional rights.

The New England First Amendment Coalition has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief laying out the case against the selfie ban. Filed in conjunction with the Keene Sentinel and prepared by the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, it is a humdinger. Over the course of 34 pages, the brief ranges from a John Oliver comedy routine to show that concerns about voter fraud (the alleged reason for the ban) are vastly overblown to the social impact of images depicting civil-rights demonstrators being attacked in Selma, Ala.

The heart of the brief, though, is a forceful argument that ballot selfies are a form of political speech and therefore deserve the highest level of constitutional protection. “Political speech is a ‘core’ concern of the First Amendment,” the amici write, “and protection of speech is never stronger than when the speaker is addressing political or governmental issues.”

So what could go wrong? In fact, it is not difficult to imagine how ballot selfies might be abused. If someone wants to buy your vote, it stands to reason that he’s going to want proof of purchase. “We have prosecutions for vote buying every year, and many of them involve absentee ballots, where it is possible to see how someone voted and collect and mail their ballot,” writes University of California Irvine law professor Richard L. Hasen in defending the ban.

Yet there is to date no evidence that ballot selfies have been used to enable such schemes—and, according to opponents of the ban, theoretical threats simply can’t be used to defend a law that has the effect of squelching political expression. In a paper published by the Science and Technology Law Review at Southern Methodist University, Nashville lawyer Daniel A. Horwitz says that Hasen is wrong—that vote buying is “statistically non-existent.” Moreover, Horwitz writes, the law would be ineffective in any case because the ballot could be altered after the photo is taken, “rendering the entire premise behind such laws baseless.”

Yes, ballot selfies can be annoying. So can watching the person at the next table take an Instagram of her shrimp scampi. That doesn’t mean either activity should be illegal.

In defending the selfie ban, New Hampshire’s Gardner last year told NPR that breaching the privacy of the ballot booth was a serious threat to democracy. “I have a copy of the last ballot that was used when Saddam Hussein was elected, and that ballot identified who the person was,” he was quoted as saying. “Hitler did the same thing in Austria.”

That’s exactly the sort of wild overstatement that ought to make us suspicious. In fact, the ban prevents us from exercising our free-speech rights today in the name of preventing theoretical evils that can be dealt with when—and if—they arise.

Muzzle Awards follow-up: Two victories for free speech

awardAmong the New England Muzzle Award recipients I recognized last month at WGBHNews.org were Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, for backing a ridiculous 70-year-old state law that banned political lying, and New Hampshire State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a leader in the effort to outlaw the scourge of so-called ballot selfies.

This month, the courts agreed on both fronts.

According to Zack Huffman of Courthouse News Service, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the anti-lying statute, with Justice Robert Cordy writing:

We conclude that [the statute] cannot be limited to the criminalization of fraudulent or defamatory speech, is neither necessary nor narrowly tailored to advancing the commonwealth’s interest in fair and free elections, and chills the very exchange of ideas that gives meaning to our electoral system.

It is now safe for the presidential candidates to campaign in Massachusetts.

In New Hampshire, U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro ruled that the ban on posting photos of a marked ballot could not be justified even though it was supposedly designed to eliminate bribery, with the selfie providing the proof needed that the person taking the bribe had voted as instructed.

The problem, Barbadoro noted, was that such fraud had not actually taken place in at least the past 100 years. In addition, Barbadoro ruled that the law “deprives voters of one of their most powerful means of letting the world know how they voted,” according to an account of the decision by Jeremy Blackman of the Concord Monitor.

The moral of these stories: Do not mess with the Muzzles.

WGBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Cities and towns seek to derail public-records reform

A serious attempt to reform the state’s broken public-records law — the shortcomings of which I described recently in the WGBH News Muzzle Awards — is on the verge of being derailed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), according to advocates.

On Friday came word that the state Legislature was likely to pass the long-awaited reform bill, House 2772, according to The Boston Globe and State House News Service. The bill, though not perfect, includes key provisions to hit noncompliant government agencies with lawyers’ fees and to limit how much those agencies can charge for complying with public-records requests.

Now comes word that the municipal association, a lobbying group for the state’s cities and towns, is working to prevent final passage. Here is a statement sent out by the MMA in which the bill is denounced as an “unfunded mandate” that could be used to “harass” local officials.

The following is an email sent to me by Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Hi Folks,

It is do or die time for MassFOIA, because our public records bill, which was on the move, is now under aggressive attack.

As of yesterday, the plan was for a House vote on our public records bill next Weds, with a Senate vote the following week. Now, the MMA is fighting back with everything they have [a reference to the document linked above] and we need to do the same or the bill may be dead.  In fact, it appears the House has cancelled their formal session for next week so our reform efforts are in mortal danger. If they kill the bill now, it will be all the more difficult to revive.

So, please:

1) Write to your members to get them to call or email their legislators. I’ve attached an email that Pam wrote to Common Cause members this morning. [Note: I have not included the attachment.]

2) Stay tuned as we develop materials over the weekend and early next week that you may need to sign onto — such as a coalition letter. We will need a quick turn around.

3) Keep your eyes open for updated talking points over the weekend.

Thanks for your support of this critical issue!

Best,

Gavi Wolfe, ACLU of Massachusetts
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
Bob Ambrogi, MA Newspaper Publishers Association
Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition

Presenting the 18th annual New England Muzzle Awards

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 1.40.06 PMFrom fast-food chicken chain Chick-fil-A to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, everyone, it seems, has got a problem with free speech.

Please have a look at the 18th edition of the New England Muzzle Awards — launched in 1998 at the late, great Boston Phoenix and now hosted exclusively by WGBHNews.org. The Campus Muzzles, as always, are helmed by civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate.

Muzzling the press, from Tsarnaev to Delauter

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Frederick News-Post won the Internet Tuesday with a hilariously defiant editorial.

Faced with a threat by a city council member named Kirby Delauter to sue if his name was published without his permission, the Maryland newspaper responded with a piece headlined “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter” that repeated his name nearly 50 times and included his photo. And if that didn’t make the point sufficiently, the first letter of each paragraph spelled out “K-I-R-B-Y-D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.”

Delauter’s ludicrous assault on the First Amendment was easily batted away. But not all matters involving freedom of speech and of the press are as amusing or as trivial. You need look no further than the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is about to begin without the benefit of television cameras inside the courtroom.

Tsarnaev may be sentenced to die on our behalf — yet we are being denied the right to watch the justice system at work, a crucial check on the awesome power of government. Last year a WGBH News Muzzle Award was bestowed upon U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his opposition to cameras in federal courtrooms. Unfortunately, the situation seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

At least the ban on courtroom cameras does not explicitly violate the First Amendment. The same cannot be said of Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz, who on Monday ruled that the news media were prohibited from reporting anything said in court by the defendant in a domestic-violence case, a criminal defense lawyer named Anthony Sineni. Reporting on witness testimony was prohibited as well.

The Portland Press Herald published this article in defiance of the gag order, and reporter Scott Dolan writes that Moskowitz has called a hearing for later today — possibly to express his displeasure over the Press Herald’s actions, or possibly to acknowledge that he got it wrong.

The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all gag orders such as Moskowitz’s are unconstitutional. “There is a 100 percent chance this order is unlawful,” said Press Herald lawyer Sigmund Schutz, who was quoted in a blog post by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have been very clear, what occurs or is said in the court is a matter of public record.”

A different sort of gag order is preventing us from learning everything we might know about the death of Michael Brown, the black unarmed teenager who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. Whether Wilson’s actions were justified or not, the incident helped expose the racial divide in Ferguson and sparked protests nationwide.

Now it turns out that a member of the grand jury that chose not to indict Wilson wants to speak, but is prohibited from doing so by a Missouri law that requires grand jurors to remain silent. The grand juror has filed suit against St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to be allowed to discuss the case.

Though it’s not clear what the grand juror has to say, a report by Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio offers some hints. Quoting from the lawsuit, McDaniel writes: “In [the grand juror]’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate — especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges.” (McDaniel notes that grand jury decisions need not be unanimous.)

Though it is not unusual for grand jury members to be prohibited from speaking, the ACLU, which is assisting with the suit, says that in this particular case “any interests furthered by maintaining grand jury secrecy are outweighed by the interests secured by the First Amendment.” The Boston Globe today editorialized in favor of letting the grand juror speak.

What all of these cases have in common is the belief by some government officials that the press and the public should be treated like mushrooms: watered and in the dark. These matters are not mere threats to abstract constitutional principles. they are assaults on the public’s right to know.

Or as the Frederick News-Post so eloquently put it: Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter!