The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is back in the news and, as usual, it’s for all the wrong reasons. This time it’s for sending a Muslim female student home because she was wearing a hijab in violation of the school’s uniform policy, according to Lara Salahi of NBC Boston. The school admitted to it and said all the family needed to do was seek an accommodation ahead of time. But why should they have to ask permission to practice their religion?
In a message sent out on Aug. 19, School Supt. Alexander Dan claims that the brouhaha was the result of “one of the child’s older siblings posting misleading information about this issue on social media.” Yet the “School Uniform Compliance Form” is as clear as can be — the student was punished for wearing a hijab without permission, an obvious violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of religion. “Hijab” is misspelled “jihab,” which, as one Facebook wag noticed, manages to combine “hijab” with “jihad.”
Mystic Valley is a public charter school that receives tax money.
Dan’s message is remarkably self-pitying, as he goes on to cite — and link to an audio recording of — a threatening message received by a school staff member. The message, Dan writes, “contains extremely offensive, obscene language,” and Malden Police were notified. Obviously that shouldn’t have happened, but this is about the school’s ongoing racist practices rather than the reaction to those practices.
In 2017, I gave Mystic Valley a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for banning hair extensions, an action that disproportionately affected young Black women. Black students with long braids and dreads were taken to the office and inspected to see if they were wearing extensions. Punishment was meted out, including detention and suspension from activities such as athletics and the prom. That fiasco led to an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey and a settlement in which the school promised to behave itself in the future. Just recently, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of hair style and which was motivated in part by Mystic Valley’s actions.
In 2020, The Boston Globe’s Hayley Kaufman reported on concerns among alumni that the school was hampered by a “culture that penalized students who spoke out about inequities, while seeming to shrug off reports of bias.”
And now this. The time has come for the state to mete out some serious penalties.
By the way … sorry for the reproductions. I doubt you’ll be able to read them on a phone, but you should be able to read them on a laptop or tablet.
On this week’s edition of the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with John Garrett, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, started the monthly Community Impact Newspaper in 2005 in Texas. They had three full-time employees and covered two towns in Texas, Round Rock and Pflugerville.
Community Impact expanded into Arizona and Tennessee, and by 2018, Forbes reported, the Garretts had 220 employees and annual revenue of $27 million. They have an online presence, of course, but they also believe in print: their newspapers are distributed by mail every month. They even opened their own printing plant to handle their newspaper and other jobs and have a sign out front that says: “Print Ain’t Dead.”
But as we prepared for this podcast, John told us they’ve just made some tough decisions. They sold their Phoenix operations and closed their small Nashville outlet. They’ve decided to focus on Texas, where their business is doing well, and they have fresh plans for the future there.
Ellen and I devote the entire Quick Takes segment of the podcast to the New England Muzzle Awards, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states. The awards were conceived of by my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate, the noted Boston civil-liberties lawyer. For many years, they were published by the late, lamented Boston Phoenix. They’ve been hosted by GBH News since 2013, and this year marks their 25th anniversary.
A Boston mayor who trampled on a religious group’s right to freedom of expression. A Worcester city manager who trampled on the public’s right to know about police misconduct. A New Hampshire state legislator who trampled on teachers’ rights by demanding that they take a “loyalty oath” promising not to teach their students about racism.
These are just a few of the winners of the 2022 New England Muzzle Awards.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Muzzles, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states.
A Rhode Island law that was the subject of a 2021 GBH News Muzzle Award has been struck down by that state’s Supreme Court.
The Associated Press reports that Rhode Island’s “civil death” law, under which anyone serving a life sentence was regarded as dead with respect to having access to the justice system, “deprives those persons imprisoned at the ACI for life of their right to bring civil actions in our state courts.” (The ACI is the Adult Correctional Institutions.) The bizarre law stated:
Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.
Last July I awarded a New England Muzzle to Rhode Island’s attorney general, Peter Neronha, a Democrat, for his overzealous defense of a law that didn’t exist in any other state. Among other things, Neronha argued that life in prison — or, for that matter, the death penalty — are more severe punishments than civil death yet pose no constitutional issues.
In fact, as the Rhode Island ACLU pointed out, there are punishments that many would regard as worse than life in prison, or even death. As the ACLU’s state executive director, Steven Brown, explained, civil death means that “an inmate … serving a life sentence could be waterboarded, beaten mercilessly by guards, or held in a cell and denied all food and water, but have no access to our state courts to challenge these egregious violations of his constitutional rights.”
In a press release, the Rhode Island ACLU hailed Wednesday’s decision as “an important victory for the principle that the courts should be open to all for redress.”
Bill Gardner, who announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election as New Hampshire’s secretary of state after nearly a half-century in office, won a New England Muzzle Award from GBH News in 2017 for his obsession with cracking down on “ballot selfies.” Here’s the item:
Who would have thought that we’d end up awarding two Muzzles in connection with a New Hampshire ban on “ballot selfies”? Yet the absurd law, under which you could be fined $1,000 for taking a photo of your completed ballot and posting it on social media, simply will not die.
In 2015 we gave a Muzzle to the prime mover behind the legislation. This year we are awarding the statuette to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals last fall and then, this past April, failed to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the case. Even that wasn’t enough to stop his crusade. “There are other ways to deal with this, and there are people across the country that are addressing this,” Gardner told New Hampshire Public Radio. Has anyone got a wooden stake?
A little background: In 2015 the Muzzle went to Timothy Horrigan, a Democratic state legislator from Durham, who pushed the ban as a way of preventing vote-buying and voter coercion — never mind that there hadn’t been any reported instances of ballot selfies being linked to those nefarious practices.
Selfie-posting voters protested, including State Representative Leon Rideout, a Lancaster Republican. The federal courts got involved. Rather than backing off, the state continued to fight for the law, none more ardently than Gardner.
Theoretically, the concerns raised by Horrigan, Gardner, and others could become reality. But there is no evidence that they have, and the courts do no look favorably upon abridgements of the First Amendment without having a very good reason. New Hampshire is not the only state to ban ballot selfies, so the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case could have national implications.
The appeals court’s ruling said in part: “New Hampshire may not impose such a broad restriction on speech by banning ballot selfies in order to combat an unsubstantiated and hypothetical danger. We repeat the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Gardner, nominally a Democrat, also came under fire for refusing to step down from President Donald Trump’s bogus voting commission after the chair of that commission wrote a piece for the right-wing website Breitbart falsely claiming that Trump had actually won New Hampshire in 2016.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Mr. Secretary.
Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?
Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.
During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.
• The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.
• Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.
• The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.
• How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.
• The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.
• How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.
• Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.
• Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.
• COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.
• How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.
A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.
Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.