The BPD officer who helped win a Muzzle Award gets off with a slap on the wrist

Video of Boston Police Sgt. Clifton McHale bragging about driving his cruiser into protesters was at the heart of our lead GBH News Muzzle Award for 2021. The Muzzle was giving to the Boston and Worcester police departments for their violent suppression of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Incredibly, McHale is being let off with a slap at the wrist and has returned to duty. Eoin Higgins, who obtained bodycam footage of McHale and other officers in the original story for The Appeal last December, broke the news of McHale’s unconscionably short suspension of eight to 10 days on Thursday for his newsletter, The Flashpoint.

“It makes you wonder what a Boston Police officer has to do to get fired,” attorney Carl Williams, who originally provided the bodycam footage to Higgins, was quoted as saying. “How in an unprecedented time of calls for police accountability can this be happening?”

In the video, McHale can be seen and heard excitedly telling a fellow officer about his exploits:

Dude, dude, dude, I fuckin’ drove down Tremont — there was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around. So then I had a fucker keep coming, fucking running, I’m fucking hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, “get the fuck—”

But when McHale realizes he’s being caught on tape, he tries to back down:

Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all.

This is not the first time that McHale has crossed the line. Laura Crimaldi reports in The Boston Globe that McHale served a one-year suspension for a 2005 incident “after an internal investigation concluded he had engaged in ‘inappropriate sexual relations with [a] highly intoxicated woman.'” As Globe columnist Adrian Walker writes, “Clifton McHale still carries a badge, and that fact shouldn’t sit well with anyone in Boston.”

Despite his boasting, apparently McHale didn’t actually drive his cruiser into anyone. But that doesn’t mean he should have gotten off with such a light penalty. In fact, he should have been fired.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey denounced McHale’s light punishment. And whoever wins the mayoral election, Michelle Wu or Annissa Essaibi George, is going to have her hands full in attempting to reform the Boston Police Department.

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Regrets, Walsh has a few

Then-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Photo (cc) 2014 by Joe Spurr.

Good to know that Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh regrets having dumped the Dennis White mess into Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s lap. But he still hasn’t explained why he refused to release former police officer and accused child molester Patrick Rose’s personnel records despite having been ordered to do so by the secretary of state’s office.

Marilyn Schairer of GBH News reports that Walsh, who preceded Janey as mayor, addressed the White matter during a swing through Boston, saying:

I made it very clear I wanted to resolve that situation before I left. And unfortunately, wasn’t able to. But, you know, Kim took action. I watched what she did. And now there’s a search for a commissioner. And that’s the right way to go.

Walsh left behind a disaster within the Boston Police Department. White was the police commissioner for a few days before claims of domestic abuse were surfaced, leading Walsh to suspend him. Janey ended up firing him. Rose, a former president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, has been charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse, a spree that was enabled by an apparent failure to act on an internal investigation in the mid-’90s that found one of his alleged victims was most likely telling the truth.

Both White and Rose have denied any wrongdoing.

Walsh’s stonewalling in the Rose matter earned him a New England Muzzle Award from GBH News last month.

Journalism is becoming a dangerous occupation

Photo (cc) 2012 by Mr.TinDC

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post reports on a disturbing phenomenon: television journalists coming under attack. “In recent months, local TV news crews have faced verbal and physical abuse while on the job,” he writes. “A few reporters have been injured. Some have been robbed or had their equipment damaged.”

Some of it is no doubt related to the “enemies of the people” rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, who made hatred of the press part of his authoritarian brand. And as Farhi notes, TV reporters are far more conspicuous than those of us who walk around with notebooks and smartphones, making them more likely to be subjected to violence.

It’s not just MAGA. One of our GBH News Muzzle Award winners this year were Black Lives Matter protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole copies of the alt-weekly Seven Days and burned some of them. No, that’s not the same as assaulting reporters. But I wouldn’t imagine that was a safe place to be for someone visibly identified as a reporter.

And let’s not forget it was just three years ago that a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. On Thursday a jury found that the shooter, Jarrod Ramos, was criminally responsible, rejecting his insanity defense.

Journalism is still safer than working as a lumberjack. Neither, though, is it entirely hazard-free. It’s something we’ve begun to talk about with our students. I don’t know what the answer is. Bearing witness is a vital part of what we do. If we have to start barricading ourselves in secure newsrooms, a lot of what we do will be lost.

Muzzle follow-up: New Hampshire adopts ban on ‘divisive’ antiracism education

I posted this at the bottom of my GBH News column for today, but I want to publish it here as well.

The GBH News 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted at the time, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

This is a blow against local autonomy, coming from the “Live Free or Die” state.

In a related development, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham starts to connect the dots with Parents United, a group of wealthy white parents who are so, so concerned about antiracism education. Follow the money, as they say, and Abraham documents ties to the Club for Growth and the Federalist, two formerly conservative organizations that have moved to the Trumpist right in recent years.

The Supreme Court may be poised to weaken libel protections for the press

Photo (cc) 2005 by zacklur

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’ve learned anything about right-wing politics in the Age of Trump, it’s that what once seemed impossible becomes plausible — and then morphs into a new reality. We’ve seen it with the refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election. We’ve seen it with attacks on face masks and vaccines. And now we may be seeing it with libel law.

For more than half a century, protections enacted by the U.S. Supreme Court have shielded the press by enabling journalists to hold the powerful to account without having to worry about frivolous libel suits. The 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan established the principle that a public official would have to prove a news organization acted with “actual malice” — meaning that the offending material was known to be false or was published with “reckless disregard for the truth.” That standard was later extended to public figures as well. The decision provided journalism with the armor it needed to report fearlessly, enabling stories such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

It seemed impossible that this bulwark would fall when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for people to sue media outlets. And it seemed only slightly less impossible in early 2019, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an intemperate dissent arguing that Times v. Sullivan should be overturned in its entirety, returning libel law to the tender mercies of the states.

After all, the actual malice standard was enacted because the racist white power structure in the South had weaponized libel during the civil rights era as a way to intimidate the press. Surely Thomas’ fellow justices had no desire to return to those blighted days. Besides, a strong First Amendment appeared to be one of the few areas on which liberal and conservative judges agreed.

But weakening those protections began to seem more plausible several months ago when Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia praised Thomas — and joined his call to overturn Times v. Sullivan. Silberman threw a judicial tantrum, blasting what he viewed as liberal media bias and writing that “when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.”

Impossible. Then plausible. And, now, a glimmer of a potential coming reality: Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in dissenting from a decision not to hear a case brought by the son of a former Albanian president against the author of a book who’d accused him of illegal gunrunning. Thomas’ opinion bristles with indignation and approvingly cites Silberman. Gorsuch, in turn, cites Thomas. But unlike Silberman and Thomas, Gorsuch’s opinion is all sweet reasonableness, discussing how much the media have changed since 1964 and asking, gosh darn it, why we shouldn’t acknowledge that social media, cable news and clickbait websites require a different approach to libel.

Arguing — correctly, I should note — that the actual malice standard allows media outlets to escape a libel judgment if they can prove they believed the defamatory falsehoods they published were true, Gorsuch writes: “It seems that publishing without investigation, fact-checking, or editing has become the optimal legal strategy…. Under the actual malice regime as it has evolved, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

Gorsuch’s conclusion oozes good intentions. “I do not profess any sure answers,” he writes. “I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking. But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

Gorsuch’s opinion relies heavily on an academic paper titled “Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,” by David A. Logan, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Logan writes that actual malice has provided the media with “what amounts to an absolute immunity from damages actions for false statements,” which in turn has “facilitated a torrent of false information entering our public square.”

Logan’s examination of the data shows that libel judgments have plunged in the years since Times v. Sullivan, suggesting that the decision has created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to public officials and public figures who’ve been wronged. He suggests several possible remedies, such as narrowing the definition of a public figure or devising a system that would allow plaintiffs to “secure a judgment of falsehood in return for giving up a claim for damages.”

And he closes with the big one: getting rid of the actual malice standard altogether and replacing it with something easier to prove, such as “highly unreasonable conduct.”

Changes that result in fewer protections for the press make me queasy. But if the Supreme Court is serious about revisiting actual malice, then adopting something like a juiced-up negligence standard, as Logan proposes, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome. Negligence is already the standard for private figures in most states, as laid out in the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. It would certainly be better than overturning Times v. Sullivan altogether.

But remember: What seems impossible today may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Changes to libel protections that we had long taken for granted are starting to look inevitable, especially in the hands of a Supreme Court built by Trump and Mitch McConnell. Let’s just hope the justices don’t do too much damage to the press’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

Muzzle follow-up

Well, it happened. The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

Looking back at 24 years of New England Muzzle Awards

In the spring of 1998, civil-liberties lawyer and First Amendment advocate Harvey Silverglate had an idea: Why not single out enemies of free speech in the pages of The Boston Phoenix? Harvey was a Phoenix contributor; I was the media columnist. We refined Harvey’s idea and, at his suggestion, named them the Muzzle Awards — borrowing the name from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (now defunct) and restricting them to the Boston, Worcester, Portland and Providence areas, where we had papers.

We decided on the Fourth of July for two reasons — first, to emphasize that the Muzzles were an expression of patriotism; second, so that the rest of the news staff could pretty much take the week off. The first annual Muzzle Awards were published on July 3, 1998. Among other winners, we singled out of the FCC for shutting down Radio Free Allston, a pirate station that served the community at a time when it was even harder to get a license for a low-power FM operation than it is today; the town of Plymouth, where police roughed up Native American protesters; and Walmart, for refusing to sell CDs that carried a parental warning label.

The Muzzles turned out to be a hit. David Brudnoy and, later, Dan Rea would have me on to talk about them on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) and — I’d like to think — we helped educate our readers about the importance of free expression.

I continued writing the Muzzles after leaving the Phoenix for Northeastern in 2005. At that point, I stopped singling out colleges and universities because I thought it would be a conflict of interest. Harvey began writing the Campus Muzzle Awards as a sidebar.

Then, in the spring of 2013, The Boston Phoenix closed abruptly, and we needed a new home for the Muzzles. Fortunately my friends at GBH News stepped up and have been hosting them ever since. Although The Worcester Phoenix was long gone at that point, the Muzzles continued to appear in the Providence and Portland papers until they, too, shut down. (The Portland Phoenix was revived a couple of years ago under new ownership and appears to be doing well.) And here’s a pretty astonishing fact: Peter Kadzis has been editing the Muzzles from the beginning, first at the Phoenix, now at GBH.

This year’s New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, are, like their predecessors, a reflection of the era. The Black Lives Matter protest movement that was revived after the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor figure in several of the awards — from Boston and Worcester police officers who brutalized peaceful demonstrators, to racial justice protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole and destroyed copies of a newspaper whose coverage they were unhappy with, to Sheriff Scott Kane of Hancock County, Maine, who banned a desperately needed drug-counseling service from his jail after the nonprofit posted a statement on its website in support of Black Lives Matter.

We have some well-known winners, too, including Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. The town of Plymouth is back as well — this time for threatening punitive fines against a Trump supporter who’d put a sign critical of President Joe Biden on his lawn.

This is the 24th year of Muzzle Awards, so next year will be a landmark. Will they continue after their 25th anniversary? Right now I couldn’t tell you. I have put together an index of all 24 years in case you’re interested in what previous editions looked like. Link rot had claimed some of them, but I was able to overcome that thanks to the Internet Archive.

The animating spirit of the Muzzles was best expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

It’s been a long ride — and I’ve already got a candidate for the 2022 edition.

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The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

Previously published at GBH News.

The past year was the most tumultuous in our history since at least 1968, characterized by a deadly pandemic, economic collapse and a presidential election whose aftermath culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol, cheered on — and, arguably, incited — by the losing candidate.

But that wasn’t all. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a revived Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets and protested from coast to coast. The response to those protests, and to the movement in general, leads our list of New England Muzzle Awards this year.

Those censorious actions include police brutality against demonstrators in Boston and Worcester who were attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Efforts aimed at banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Ending a drug counseling program at a jail in Maine because the organization that runs it had expressed sympathy for Black Lives Matter. Grabbing hundreds of copies of a newspaper from newsstands and burning some of them, as racial justice demonstrators did in Burlington, Vermont.

Other prominent winners include former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who refused to comply with multiple public records requests about an internal investigation of former Boston police officer and union president Patrick Rose, who faces 33 charges linked to sexually abusing young children; retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who hit CNN with a $300 million libel suit that seemed aimed more at intimidation than illumination; and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who all but invited his fans to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine by falsely claiming they planned to reveal the location of his home in that state.

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 ninth year they have been hosted by GBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the now-defunct Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please. Continue reading “The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech”

Des Moines Register calls for charges against reporter to be dropped

In an editorial that’s getting a lot of national attention, the Des Moines Register is calling for a criminal case to be dropped against one of its reporters, Andrea Sahouri, who was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Sahouri was arrested at a protest on May 31 last year. Her trial is scheduled for March 8. The Register puts it this way:

Sahouri, who has worked as a reporter for the Register since August 2019, was doing her constitutionally protected job at the protest, conducting interviews, taking photos and recording what was happening.

If convicted, she’ll have a criminal record and faces possible penalties of 30 days in jail and a fine of $625 for each offense.

The editorial also notes that the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 126 arrests and detainments of journalists in 2020, most of them at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

And though the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor may resulted in a massive increase in such detentions, there’s nothing new about it. In 2018, police in Bridgeport, Connecticut, detained a reporter during a Black Lives Matter protest in a transparent attempt to stop her from doing her job. Their actions were the subject of a 2019 GBH News Muzzle Award.

Twitter reportedly bans Mass. political gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai

Shiva Ayyadurai, in white hat. Photo (cc) 2019 by Marc Nozell.

Massachusetts Republican gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai has been banned from Twitter, most likely for claiming that he’d lost his most recent race for the U.S. Senate only because Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office destroyed a million electronic ballots. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has the details.

In 2018, I gave the City of Cambridge a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for ordering Ayyadurai to dismantle an wildly offensive sign on his company’s Cambridge property that criticized Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. City officials told him that the sign, which read “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” violated the city’s building code.

Ayyadurai threatened to sue, which led the city to back off.

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.

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