The Mystic Valley Charter School is back in the news for how it treats Black students

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is back in the news for discriminatory behavior — this time for insensitive comments by a former trustee and flat-out racist remarks and disciplinary practices. The Boston Globe reports.

In 2017, we gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to Mystic Valley for literally discriminating against Black hair.

You can tell a Mystic Valley administrator, but apparently you can’t tell them much.

Correction: My original post referred to comments by a trustee; he is in fact a former trustee who, until recently, remained involved in the school.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The 2020 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 Who Diminish Free Speech

Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

At a moment of national crisis over racism and police brutality, it is depressingly apt that our lead New England Muzzle Award this year concerns an African American teacher in Milton, Massachusetts, who was briefly placed on leave and investigated for telling her sixth-grade poetry students that some police officers are racist.

School officials in Milton quickly backtracked, and the teacher, Zakia Jarrett, received a considerable amount of public support. Nevertheless, it’s sad and telling that the school administration’s first impulse was to punish the messenger rather than focus on the uncomfortable truth of her message.

Other Muzzle Award winners this year include a judge who refused a prosecutor’s request that he drop minor charges against nonviolent protesters (for good measure, he also briefly jailed a defense lawyer for reading the law to him); the police department in Portland, Maine, whose officers made an intimidating visit to a critic’s home under the guise of what appear to be trumped-up vandalism charges; and a town official in Exeter, Rhode Island, who shepherded through an ordinance requiring that people attending public meetings act with “decorum.”

Needless to say, the 2020 Muzzle Awards come at a time of unprecedented crisis, as the country struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse and a long-overdue coming to terms with the legacy of racism.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country, and in some cases turned violent. Police, too, overreacted, driving into crowdsbeating peaceful protesters and deliberately targeting journalists.

New England was spared the worst of those excesses. Still, especially in the early days of the demonstrations, heavy-handed police tactics in Boston and elsewhere sometimes overshadowed the message that the protesters were trying to convey. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told The Boston Globe last week that she is investigating police conduct at those protests.

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 eighth 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.

Milton (Mass.) Public Schools

A Black teacher is targeted for speaking the uncomfortable truth.

Perhaps a Muzzle Award should go to the anonymous parent or student who recorded Zakia Jarrett last month as she was leading a remote sixth-grade poetry lesson and said that Black people were “being killed by racist white people … which many of the cops are, as well.” Whoever passed along that clip to Milton school officials sent an ominous warning in this new era of education by Zoom and Google: Be careful what you say, because you’re being watched.

Instead, though, the Muzzle goes to the Milton Public Schools. Their sole response should have been to remind everyone that recording teachers and making the clips public was a violation of school policy. Instead, according to The Boston Globe, Jarrett’s principal at the Pierce Middle School, William Fish, placed Jarrett on paid administrative leave while school officials investigated, sending a chilling message to the entire town.

The action affecting Jarrett was reversed later that day. But a considerable amount of damage had already been done. About 400 parents reportedly signed a letter in support of Jarrett, who is Black, and called on the school system to do a better job of teaching students about race and racism.

School officials quickly backtracked from their initial tough stance.

“At no point was the teacher suspended nor was any disciplinary action taken. The leave was rescinded after a few hours,” according to a statement posted on the school system’s website. The statement added that Schools Superintendent Mary Gormley “met with and apologized to the teacher and followed up with a written apology.”

But the Milton Educators Association, as the local teachers’ union is known, had a decidedly different perspective. In a statement published in the Milton Times, the union said that “nearly an entire week went by before the district responded to this situation in a way that conveyed how its actions let down all of the students and educators. The district’s message still fell short of what the MEA believed would have been an acceptable apology that acknowledged the full impact of this incident.”

What’s sad is that school officials fell back upon an unthinking bureaucratic response at the first sign of trouble. They should have been able to see how this would play out as soon as they received that 13-second clip. Not only could they have avoided a lot of trouble, but they missed a chance to do the right thing.

On June 19, Juneteenth, Milton educators and activists held a rally and march for racial justice. It was a chance for everyone to reflect and to take steps to ensure that nothing like it would happen again.

Despite that support, Jarrett told the Globe she hadn’t decided whether to stay in Milton.

“The word ‘racism’ triggers a lot of negative feelings,” she was quoted as saying. “The idea that people may hold racist beliefs makes them feel bad about themselves. But all people have biases and prejudices. And until we talk about them, we can’t root them out.”

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker

He seeks to end nearly 380 years of access to vital records.

Since 1641, Massachusetts has made death certificates, marriage notices and birth records freely available to anyone who requests them. That could change, though, under an obscure proposal included as an outside section of the budget earlier this year, according to The Boston Globe. The proposal would hide such records from public view for what would amount to a lifetime.

If approved, the measure would be a step backwards in a state already notorious for limited access to public records. The Muzzle goes to Gov. Charlie Baker, who may be under the impression that he’s enhancing privacy protections, but who in reality would be cutting off a vital source of information for journalists and researchers.

Access to such records advances the public interest. For example, WGBH News reporter Jenifer McKim tweeted, “As MA governor works to make birth, death records secret, thinking of the stories I’ve written and produced with the help of these key, currently public, documents,” including suicides at colleges and universities.

 

The genealogical community was angered as well. In an interview with the Chelsea Record, Ryan Woods, executive vice president of the New England and Genealogical Society, said, “Unequivocally it was a surprise to us. There had not been any public discussion about this until it appeared in the budget.”

The Massachusetts Genealogical Council said the measure would make health researchers’ jobs harder and could make it more difficult for women who need to document breast cancer within their families so that they may qualify for genetic testing. The council added: “This is a time when genealogists from throughout the world should step up and be heard.”

By including the proposal in his budget rather than filing it as a separate piece of legislation, Baker has made it more difficult to defeat, as legislators won’t be able to vote against it without also opposing spending measures that they might support.

The governor and the legislative leadership should delete this ill-considered proposal before it is ever put to a vote.

Judge Richard Sinnott

The son of Boston’s last official city censor keeps the tradition alive.

For courtroom heavy-handedness above and beyond the norm, it’s hard to beat Muzzle winner Richard Sinnott, a judge in the Boston Municipal Court.

Last September, The Boston Globe reported that Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins was seeking to drop charges against a group of nonviolent counter-protesters who’d been arrested on minor charges at a so-called Straight Pride demonstration. Sinnott refused.

Next, he ordered one of the defense lawyers, Susan Church, removed and locked up because she had the temerity to read from case law in order to argue that Sinnott had no right to reject Rollins’ recommendation. She was released about two hours later. “All I was trying to do is to read the law to the court, and I was summarily arrested, handcuffed, brought down to the holding cell, held there for hours,” Church told WGBH News.

The lenient treatment that Rollins sought was not indiscriminate, as she asked for more-serious charges to move forward against another group of protesters accused of violence.

“Make no mistake: some people were appropriately arraigned and will be held accountable for actions that put the safety of the public and law enforcement at risk,” Rollins said in a statement reported by Universal Hub. “For those people now tangled in the criminal justice system for exercising their right to free speech — many of whom had no prior criminal record — I will use the legal process to remedy the judge’s overstepping of his role.”

The standoff was resolved quickly. Several days later, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Frank Gaziano ruled that Judge Sinnott had no authority to stop Rollins from dropping the charges, according to MassLive.

Sinnott comes by his Muzzle-worthy ways naturally. His father, also named Richard Sinnott, was at one time the city censor, in charge of banning risqué entertainment such as strip shows and overly salacious Broadway plays. The New York Times called him “the last municipal official empowered to ban wickedness in Boston.”

Good thing that the younger Sinnott’s bid to keep the “Banned in Boston” flame burning ended in failure.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

From their perch in northern Maine, they spy on Canadian mail.

What could be more sacrosanct than your mail? With the exception of prison inmates and targets of criminal investigations, people have a right to receive packages and read correspondence free from the prying eyes of the government.

Unless, that is, you live on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Except for the summer months, when a ferry is in service, mail is delivered to the Canadian outpost over a bridge from Lubec, Maine — giving our Muzzle winner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, entrée to tear it open and inspect it. Residents know their mail has been pawed over when it arrives resealed with green tape.

To be clear, we’re talking about internal Canadian mail, originating in Canada and sent to a Canadian village. The only reason it’s delivered through the United States is because of an accident of geography.

This outrageous situation drew press coverage late last year and early this year from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the BBC, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and other media outlets. As Dale Calder, a retired Canadian government employee, told the Globe, “It’s an invasion of our privacy. There’s personal correspondence in there, people’s health records, and financial records. What are they doing with it once they open it?”

In a statement to CBC Radio, U.S. Customs officials said they “possess broad search authority to ensure the safety and admissibility of all goods entering the United States.”

Although U.S. officials wouldn’t confirm it, residents believe the reason for this snooping is that old demon weed. Marijuana is legal in Canada and Maine, but it remains illegal to transport it over the U.S. border.

“I don’t like American bullying. This kind of stuff bothers me,” an island resident named Steve Hatch, who holds both Canadian and American citizenship, told the CBC. “You should have an expectation of privacy with the mail, and we don’t here on the island.”

Chris Sevier

An out-of-state anti-LGBTQ activist bamboozles Rhode Island legislators.

To be fair, the bill that five Rhode Island state legislators introduced in March was aimed at addressing an unethical journalistic practice: reporting that a public official is under investigation but then failing to follow up. Sometimes accusations are set aside and the target is cleared of wrongdoing. The media should report that, as well.

Mandating a follow-up by law, however, is a clear abridgement of the First Amendment. That is why we are presenting a Muzzle Award to Chris Sevier, an anti-LGBTQ activist from Tennessee who achieved minor celebrity status some years ago for attempting to marry his laptop computer, according to the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today.

Sevier is the leader of a nebulous organization called Stop Guilt by Accusation, which has pushed legislation in a number of states that would require news organizations to report the outcome of investigations into public officials accused of illegal or unethical conduct. “The freedom of the press is not absolute,” Sevier told Mississippi Today.

The Rhode Island legislators withdrew the bill and conceded it went too far, according to WPRI. James Bessette, president of the Rhode Island Press Association and an editor at Providence Business News, told the station, “The fact that this bill — which would be damaging beyond any comprehension — was even introduced is both laughable and frightening.”

A coda: Last January, a similar bill was introduced in the New Hampshire legislature. According to the New England First Amendment Coalition, the legislation would have imposed liability on any news outlet that reported on criminal charges and then later failed to report that the person had been acquitted or that the charges had been dismissed.

The bill quickly died in committee.

Sevier’s group identifies New Hampshire as one of the states where it is pushing his legislation. But state Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, the sponsor of the New Hampshire bill, said in an interview with WGBH News that he had never heard of Sevier, and that the idea was his alone.

“I received a number of concerns from people who had been arrested, became public and were found not guilty, dismissed or dropped,” Flanagan said by email, adding: “My issue was that we weren’t telling what to write, but to write the whole story.”

Flanagan wins a Dishonorable Mention for his attempt to transform a reasonable observation about media ethics into an unconstitutional law.

Andrea Harrington

The Berkshire district attorney’s public records refusal prompts a resignation.

Public records violations are so common that they often don’t get the attention they deserve. Yet the principle that government should be transparent is an important one. If we don’t know what our representatives are up to, then the idea that we live in a self-governing democracy is meaningless. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts public records law is so weak that officials violate it with impunity — even though the law was strengthened slightly several years ago.

Some incidents, though, are so egregious that they warrant special mention — which is how Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington earned herself a Muzzle.

Last December, The Berkshire Eagle filed a public records request about a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock who said she’d been racially attacked. Following an investigation, her claim was found to have been a hoax. Harrington’s office declined to provide the records.

What happened next was truly startling. Harrington’s public records officer, Jeanne Kempthorne, resigned and blew the whistle on the DA, telling the Eagle, “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My concern is that what she [Harrington] did was not in the public’s interest; it was in her interest. This isn’t a private company, and it’s not her campaign. There are bigger considerations — are we actually going to fulfill our public duties?” For good measure, Kempthrone gave the Eagle redacted copies of the records it had sought.

Harrington’s office denied that anything untoward had taken place. But the law requires law enforcement agencies to release records once an investigation has concluded, as was the case with the Bard incident.

“When officials abuse the investigatory exemption of the public records law, they prevent us from learning if justice is being served in our communities,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, in an interview with the Eagle.

Finally, we are awarding a Dishonorable Mention to the Massachusetts State Police, also a 2019 Muzzle winner, which was sued by The Boston Globe in February of this year over the agency’s failure to produce documents related to the paper’s reporting on an investigation into overtime fraud and related matters.

Jeffrey Shedd

A high school principal in Maine shuts down discussion about sexual assault.

Aela Mansmann wanted to call attention to sexual harassment and assault at Cape Elizabeth High School in Maine, where she was a sophomore. So last September, she posted a note in the bathroom that read, “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” Several other girls began posting similar notes.

But when a male student complained that he was feeling targeted (an interesting reaction, given that no one was named in the notes), the school decided to act — not against sexual assault, but against whoever had posted the notes. An investigation of several weeks ensued. And the principal, Jeffrey Shedd, has earned a Muzzle Award for suspending Mansmann and two other girls for three days, writing to parents that the students had made a “bad choice” that “hurt” others, according to News Center Maine.

“I honestly feel very ashamed that my school took this action,” Mansmann said in an interview with BuzzFeed News, adding: “It was really addressing the general culture of our school, and keeping in mind several specific cases. But there are so many it’s hard to pinpoint just one and advocate for just one of them.”

After Mansmann’s parents and the ACLU of Maine filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to overturn her suspension, Judge Lance Walker issued a temporary restraining order, ruling that they were likely to prevail on the merits. “If school administrators,” Walker wrote acidly, “receive carte blanche to tamp down and vet non-frivolous outcries on topics of social justice, expressed in areas generally associated with free student communication, where would that leave us?”

School officials should have taken the opportunity to stand down. Instead, they filed an appeal, with Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs saying that administrators needed to be able to respond to statements “that are likely to spread fear and alarm, or to harm others,” according to a report by WGME and The Associated Press.

Mansmann’s suspension was put on hold pending final resolution of the case, the Portland Press Herald reported. The other two girls have not spoken publicly. It’s time for school officials to end this fiasco and apologize for trampling on the students’ free-speech rights.

Calvin Ellis

A local official in Rhode Island tells the public: Be nice — or else.

Anyone who has spent much time covering local government meetings knows that the internet isn’t the only place where you can find trolls. Cranks of various persuasions often show up so that they can yell, raise irrelevant issues and generally make pests of themselves. Sometimes they even have legitimate concerns.

Such gadflies have been dealt with since time immemorial by asking them to be quiet or, if that doesn’t work, asking them to leave. If they resist, there’s usually a police officer on hand to help them find the door. (These days, of course, they can just be muted on Zoom.)

Which is why Calvin Ellis, president of the town council in Exeter, Rhode Island, has earned a Muzzle. Last September, the council approved his unnecessary, speech-squelching ordinance requiring “decorum” by people who attend public meetings.

“We don’t anticipate enforcement,” said Ellis, according to a report by WJAR. “Only we want proper decorum, proper conduct to prevail.” Well, if you don’t “anticipate enforcement,” why do it in the first place?

Exeter has had its issues. Reportedly, some members of the public have walked out in the face of yelling, and on one occasion the Rhode Island State Police had to be called. But it’s hard to see how a rule mandating decorum would change that.

Here’s the most problematic part of the Exeter ordinance, as reported by the Johnston Sun Rise: “Any person making personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or who shall become boisterous while addressing the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission, or any member thereof, shall be forthwith, by the presiding officer, barred from further audience before the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission at that meeting, unless permission to continue is granted by a majority vote of the Town Assembly, Council, Board, or Commission.”

As Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, put it in a statement: “When does a pointed criticism of a Council member for their stand on an issue become ‘personal’? … When will impassioned comments of a speaker — whether out of enthusiasm or anger — become improperly ‘boisterous’ and subject him or her to removal from the meeting?”

A short time after the measure was approved, the Narragansett Town Council rejected a similar measure. Exeter needs to reconsider. It should be possible to exercise some control over a public meeting without an ordinance that tramples on the First Amendment.

Timothy McCarthy

His pre-pandemic proposal to ban face masks at protests went nowhere.

If we had a category for Most Ironic Muzzle Award, it would surely go to Boston City Councilor Timothy McCarthy. Last September, according to WGBH News, McCarthy persuaded his colleagues to draft an ordinance banning face masks and other identity-shielding coverings at public demonstrations.

What prompted him were the face shields used by some counter-protesters at the anti-LGBTQ “Straight Pride” rally — the same counter-protesters who drew Judge Richard Sinnott’s attention (above). To be fair, McCarthy was targeting those engaging in violence, not peaceful protesters.

“When did people wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a peaceful protest, but don’t forget your razors, and your keys for handcuffs, and your face masks in case you get urine and bleach that you’re throwing at the cops, you don’t want to get that in your eyes,’” McCarthy said.

The irony, of course, is that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now all required to wear face masks outdoors if we’re unable to practice social-distancing. Compliance with orders to wear face masks has been less than universal during the Black Lives Matter protests that have broken out over police brutality and racism, raising the specter of another coronavirus surge. Needless to say, if McCarthy’s misguided proposal had been approved, the Council would now be racing to repeal it.

Last September, McCarthy drew some guarded support from fellow councilors for his proposed face-mask ban, who noted that similar bans have been used to good effect against the Ku Klux Klan. Mayor Marty Walsh, in an interview with Jon Keller of WBZ-TV, said such a ban might make sense as long as there was an exemption for religious reasons.

At a subsequent Council meeting, though, mask-wearing opponents spoke out against the “absurdity” of the measure, according to a Boston Globe account. “Do you feel threatened right now?” asked Belmont resident Alex Marthews, who wore a mask to the hearing.

Anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment. And it’s hard to see how an anti-mask ordinance could be enforced against those engaging in violence while leaving peaceful protesters alone.

Then again, wearing face masks in public is going to be with us for a long time. McCarthy’s idea, wrong-headed though it may have been, now seems like it’s from a distant, better world.

Portland (Maine) Police

Officers intimidate an outspoken critic by showing up at his house.

Journalist Christian MilNeil is the editor of the transportation website StreetsblogMASS, a former data reporter for the Portland Press Herald and a board member of the Portland Housing Authority. In other words, he’s not the sort of guy you would expect to spray two police substations with graffiti, as Portland Police officers claim and as he staunchly denies.

MilNeil believes the real reason that two officers showed up at his house one day last month was because of something rather different: his tweets that criticized the police. Based on the evidence, it appears that MilNeil is correct — and thus we are awarding a Muzzle to the Portland Police Department.

On June 9, as the officers approached, MilNeil took their photo through a window and tweeted: “IDK if this is related to my recent tweets but #portlandme police are at my home now and threatening arrest, they won’t say why.”

 

A short time later he added, “They’re making it pretty clear they’re upset with my recent tweets. One cop told my wife ‘I know about your preconceived notions of police — I know them for a fact.’” (MilNeil later said the officers did not specifically mention the tweets, but he inferred they had seen them from what they told his wife.)

It would appear that the officers were on a mission to intimidate an outspoken critic amid protests against police brutality. Among other things, MilNeil had tweeted about a police officer who’d killed people in 2017 and 2008 — the earlier incident because, according to MilNeil, the officer had “escalated a traffic stop.” He’s also tweeted in favor of defunding the police.

According to the Portland Press Herald, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the graffiti had been written on two community policing substations, one of which was housed in a Portland Housing authority building. “It’s not because of the tweets,” she said in a text.

At deadline, it appeared that attempts were underway to get to the bottom of the incident. The Press Herald reported that City Councilor Kimberly Cook was seeking body-camera video of the encounter as part of the city’s investigation into how the police had responded to Black Lives Matter protests. The Press Herald filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the video, too, but was turned down, with the police citing investigatory exemptions.

Let’s hope some answers are forthcoming. It’s hard to imagine anything more chilling to free speech than having two police officers showing up on a critic’s doorstep and threatening prosecution on the basis of dubious charges.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The arrest of CNN journalists was shocking, but less unusual than you might think

The arrest and brief detention of a CNN crew on live television in Minneapolis early this morning was a stunning blow to the First Amendment. They were literally handcuffed and led away for doing their jobs in reporting on protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

As the video reveals, the journalists were respectful, and correspondent Omar Jimenez clearly identified himself as a reporter. He told the state police officers several times that he and his crew would move wherever they were told.

That said, what happened to Jimenez and his colleagues was more common than you might realize — and more common than it should be. Last year, we bestowed a New England Muzzle Award upon Police Chief Armando Perez of Bridgeport, Connecticut for arresting and detaining Tara O’Neill, a reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media, during a Black Lives Matter protest.

“This is a public sidewalk and I’m the press,” O’Neill later recalled telling the officer who arrested her, according to media reports. “He said, ‘OK,’ and cuffed me.”

As with this morning’s Minneapolis arrests, the misconduct by police enabled them to operate without being watched by O’Neill and her pesky smartphone. Nevertheless, she was able to film her own arrest:

 

In a better-known case, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri, during the demonstrations in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a white police officer.

Before that, Josh Stearns, now director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, put together a massive compilation of social-media posts documenting the arrest of journalists at Occupy protests around the country. (Here is a very small slice of what was going on from the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Storify, a tool for aggregating social media, recognized Stearns’ efforts with a “Storify of the Year” award.

Unfortunately, Storify later shut down, taking much of Stearns’ work with it.

Update. Stearns has posted a Twitter thread offering more background.

 

Update II. Noting that Jimenez is Black and Latino. A white CNN reporter standing nearby was not arrested.

 

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Times profiles right-wing media figure Dennis Prager. Here’s some background.

Dennis Prager. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times today profiles Prager University, a right-wing meme factory founded by media figure Dennis Prager. In case you don’t know anything about Prager, I thought you’d be interested in some background.

In 2017, I gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to YouTube and its owner, Google, for restricting access to a pro-Israel video made by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for Prager University. The video could still be accessed, but by installing a speed bump, YouTube sent a clear signal that there was something transgressive about it — a ridiculous stance regardless of what you think of Dershowitz’s views.

In 2016, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby mixed it up with Prager after Jacoby accused his fellow conservatives of hypocrisy for throwing in with Donald Trump despite his well-documented moral depravity. That led to some back-and-forth between Prager and Jacoby in which Prager accused Jacoby of “gratuitous hatred.” Jacoby responded:

For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.

As you’ll see from Nellie Bowles’ Times story, Prager is quite a piece of work.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Matt DeRienzo is out as Hearst’s chief news executive in Connecticut

Matt DeRienzo (via LinkedIn)

Note: Now updated with email from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

Holy cow. Matt DeRienzo is out as chief news executive for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, anchored by the New Haven Register. I hear he’ll be replaced by Canadian journalist Wendy Metcalfe.

I first met DeRienzo in 2011 when I was wrapping up my book on the nonprofit New Haven Independent, “The Wired City,” and he had just been named editor of the Register. At the time, DeRienzo was a rising star within the forward-thinking Digital First chain being built by John Paton. After Digital First became part of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, everything went south, and DeRienzo eventually quit in protest.

At Hearst, DeRienzo championed the case of Tara O’Neill, a Hearst reporter who was arrested and handcuffed while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Bridgeport. O’Neill’s case was the subject of a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award earlier this year.

About a month ago, Hearst’s Connecticut Post became the first major daily newspaper to call upon President Trump to resign.

What follows is an internal email sent to the staff from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which I obtained a short time ago.

Colleagues,

Coming up on five months leading HCMG [Hearst Connecticut Media Group], I have been impressed with much of what has been done and the strides we have made across the organization. There is no doubt, we are the best equipped media company in all of Connecticut to provide high-quality news and information that matters to our customers.

In an era when our industry is facing significant headwinds, I take great comfort in being a part of Hearst, whose commitment to journalism is unsurpassed and unwavering.

While much of what is happening everyday here should be applauded, it is my job to ensure we have the right vision and leadership to continuously improve.

After thoughtful consideration, it is my pleasure to welcome Wendy Metcalfe as our new Vice President of Content and Editor in Chief. Wendy will be charged with the responsibility of upgrading the quality of our enterprise reporting across all of our newsrooms while working with our consumer marketing teams to deepen the engagement we have with our readers. Wendy comes to us from the Brunswick News Inc. where she oversaw Editorial, Marketing, Circulation and Customer Services. Under her leadership, Wendy’s teams have been recognized nationally for some of the most important enterprise news reporting that has had a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities served. Most notably, the Telegraph-Journal received the 2018 Michener Award which is the highest honor in Canadian journalism and often called the Canadian Pulitzer Prize, with only one awarded across Canada each year.

Additionally, Wendy has extensive experience in executive positions at national, regional and local media companies. Key roles include Assistant Managing Editor at Canada’s biggest newspaper — the Toronto Star, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun, Regional Content Director for 19 Sun Media publications and a lead role at the Daily Record — one of the U.K.’s largest dailies.

She was also recently named one of the top 10 leading women to watch in media across North America by Editor & Publisher.

Wendy will arrive to CT with her husband and two children in mid-November and I am thrilled to welcome her.

In a related move, Matt DeRienzo will be leaving HCMG to pursue other opportunities and I thank him for his contributions and wish him the best.

We will be meeting with the various newsroom teams throughout the rest of today and tomorrow to communicate interim reporting structures.

Thank you all for everything you are doing and I am looking forward to speaking with you over the next few days.

Mike

MIKE DELUCA

HEARST | President & Publisher, Hearst CT Media Group | CEO, LocalEdge

Talk about this post on Facebook.

 

The 2019 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

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.

Armando Perez
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.”

Paul LePage
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.”

Brian Ernest
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.

Noel Green
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.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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.

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.