N.H. publisher charged with running illegal ads closes two of her three newspapers

Londonderry (N.H.) Town Hall. Photo (cc) 2021 by Sdkb.

There’s been a sad development in the case of a New Hampshire newspaper publisher who was criminally charged with running political ads that did not include the required disclosure. Debra Paul announced last Friday that she and her husband, Chris Paul, are closing two of their three weekly newspapers, the Nutfield News and the Tri-Town Times. They will continue to publish the Londonderry Times. She wrote:

It’s been a good 18+ years, all things considered. Chris and I didn’t make millions, but we never expected to. I’ve never felt such delight as when people would come up and thank us, saying it seemed like “their” newspaper. Over the years we have come to know so many amazing people, some we call friends and hope to continue to keep even though we are not printing the paper.

The story of Paul’s arrest was reported last August by the investigative news organization InDepthNH. Paul published ads for political candidates that, in several instances, failed to include the words “Political Advertisement,” a violation of state law. No sentient being could possibly have thought the offending materials were anything other than political ads, but that didn’t stop the state attorney general’s office. At least in theory, Paul could be hit with a $2,000 fine or at least a year in prison.

It sounds like an outrageous breach of First Amendment protections, but the law isn’t necessarily unconstitutional because paid advertising does not enjoy the same protections as other forms of speech. In an odd twist, Debra Paul is also an elected member of Londonderry’s town council — an obvious conflict of interest for a newspaper, although that’s entirely unrelated to her arrest.

I could not find a follow-up, so I don’t know if this ridiculous case against Paul has been disposed of. But I’m going to try to find out.

Earlier:

 

Advertisement

Emulating its R.I. strategy, The Boston Globe next year will move into N.H.

The State Capitol in Concord, N.H. Photo (cc) 2010 by Jimmy Emerson, DMV.

There was news in Mark Shanahan’s Boston Globe story on the decline of the once-great Providence Journal under Gannett ownership: the Globe is opening a New Hampshire bureau sometime in 2023, a move similar to what it’s done in Rhode Island.

At one time the Globe took New England coverage seriously, even publishing a Sunday section called New Hampshire Weekly. On a recent episode of our podcast about local news, “What Works,” Nancy West, executive director of the investigative news organization InDepthNH, said she would welcome a Globe comeback in the Granite State.

“I loved it when the Globe came up and was doing important reporting,” she said, citing in particular the paper’s coverage of a cardiac surgeon at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester whose horrendous malpractice record was obscured by his status as an operating-room star. “Was I a little jealous? My first instinct is jealousy, of course,” West told us. “But then I’m just really pleased that the word is getting out.” She added: “I would love to have the Globe come back. I would love to see it because we just need talented reporters on the street. And I think competition is healthy.”

Unlike Rhode Island, New Hampshire’s two major daily newspapers, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Concord Monitor, are independently owned. Both, however, have endured significant cuts to their reporting capacity in recent years. As West says, another news organization focused on the state would be welcome.

As with Rhode Island, New Hampshire is an opportunity for the Globe to sell more digital subscriptions without the hassle of bygone days, when it was necessary to truck papers across New England.

So where might the Globe go next? Vermont strikes me as a stretch. Connecticut? Probably not. Much of the state roots for the Yankees, and Hearst CT has a growing digital operation. Maine? Possibly, although the Globe has collaborated on some stories with the Portland Press Herald. I’m not sure they’d want to compete. If they do, David Dahl, a former top editor at the Globe who’s now editor of the nonprofit Maine Monitor, told us on “What Works” that he’d love to work with his old paper. “We’re open to any partnership discussions that we would have,” he said, “and if they want to affiliate with us, they’re more than more than welcome.”

The most logical move for the Globe after New Hampshire would be an expanded presence in Central Massachusetts — ironic given that Globe owner John Henry acquired the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester when he bought the Globe in 2013 only to sell it to out-of-state interests. The T&G eventually landed in the hands of GateHouse Media, which merged with Gannett; like most of Gannett’s properties, the T&G has been gutted.

At a time when the decline of advertising and fears of recession are leading to cuts even at once high-flying newspapers like The Washington Post, it’s heartening to see that the Globe continues to focus on expansion.

A federal appeals court rules that NH’s criminal libel law is constitutional

The 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger

If we know anything about libel law, then we know that false, defamatory speech is not a crime. It’s a civil matter, to be worked out between the two parties in court. Right? Well … hold on.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that New Hampshire’s criminal-libel statute passes constitutional muster. The case was especially pernicious because the defendant, Robert Frese, was charged with claiming that the police chief in his town of Exeter was a coward who had “covered up for a dirty cop.” That statement may be entirely false; but the idea that someone could be charged with a misdemeanor for criticizing the police is chilling indeed.

Please support this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month.

In 2019, I gave the Exeter Police Department a New England Muzzle Award for charging Frese with a misdemeanor, writing that the New Hampshire law amounted to “seditious libel, making it a crime to criticize the government.” It’s something we thought had faded away with John Peter Zenger, a New York printer who was acquitted nearly 300 years ago.

But Judge Jeffrey Howard, noting that the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision does not protect knowingly false, defamatory speech directed at public officials, ruled that Frese did not have a case. Howard wrote:

Mindful of the Supreme Court’s guidance that “the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection[,]” we conclude that Frese’s allegations fall short of asserting viable constitutional claims.

No one would be surprised that Howard would assert that Times v. Sullivan doesn’t protect knowingly false, defamatory statements. But his assertion that such statements may form the basis of a criminal case rather than a civil lawsuit is worrisome — especially at a time when there are rumbles coming out of the Supreme Court that it may be inclined to dial back libel protections, as I wrote for GBH News last year.

Judge Howard and his colleagues had a chance to stand up for freedom of speech. Instead, they chose something else.

The NH political-ad story is getting weirder and weirder

Photo (cc) 2008 by Andrea Maria Cannata

The saga of Debra Paul, the New Hampshire newspaper owner charged with a crime for publishing political ads without the required disclosure, is getting weirder and weirder.

Friend of Media Nation Aaron Read has been doing some digging, and I’m sharing some of what he posted on Facebook. It turns out that in addition to owning the Londonderry Times and another paper, Paul is a member of the town council. In February 2021, her fellow councilors complained about an editorial she published, saying she had engaged in “bullying” for writing, “Are you frustrated that nobody at town hall is listening to you? Do you feel that your town or school officials have an excuse for everything or justify decisions you don’t agree with?”

According to Julie Huss of The Eagle-Tribune, Paul replied that the editorial ran in both of her papers covering four towns, and that her words were not specifically directed at her colleagues in Londonderry.

The Daily Caller, a right-wing outlet founded by Tucker Carlson, picked up on the story a couple of days ago. Arjun Singh, citing the Derry News, reports that two of the candidates whose ads were not properly labeled were running for the school committee on so-called parents’-rights platforms. Singh also writes: “The Attorney General’s office began investigating Paul after a tip from Laura Morin, a mental health counselor with the Greater Nashua Mental Health Council, which works with schools near the Derry area, according to the arrest warrant.”

Morin appears to be a “dear friend” of the town clerk, Sherry Farrell. And in March 2018, Paul’s paper published a story about illegal political lawn signs in Londonderry that had been investigated by the state attorney general’s office. Farrell’s signs were among those targeted for lacking proper disclosure information.

It all sounds pretty incestuous. And yes, it is a massive conflict of interest for Paul to publish a paper in the same town where she’s serving as an elected official. But that doesn’t change the fact that Attorney General John Formella really needs to find something better to do with his time. It would be one thing if these political communications were aimed at deceiving people, but they were not. No harm was done. Yet Paul faces at least the theoretical possibility that she could be hit with a heavy fine and a prison term.

Earlier:

Here’s the arrest warrant in the NH illegal-advertising case

Here is the arrest warrant in the Debra Paul illegal-advertising case. It doesn’t change my understanding of the facts, but the details and the context are interesting.

Earlier:

A NH newspaper publisher is arrested and charged with running illegal political ads

In a bizarre case that raises important First Amendment issues, a New Hampshire newspaper owner has been arrested and charged with publishing political ads that the state attorney general’s office claims failed to comply with disclosure laws.

According to Nancy West of InDepthNH, the ads failed to include the words “Political Advertisement,” which is a violation of state law. The publisher, Debra Paul of the Londonderry Times, faces six misdemeanor counts. If she’s found guilty, she could be fined $2,000 or even sentenced to prison for a year. “I would like to think the attorney general’s office has more important matters to deal with than to send press releases out on misdemeanors such as this,” Paul said, according to West. “With multiple unsolved homicides over the past year, this seems a bit absurd.”

According to a statement issued by the office of Attorney General John Formella, the charges involve incidents dating back as far as 2019:

Ms. Paul, publisher of the Londonderry Times newspaper, was previously investigated and warned against such conduct on two prior occasions by the Attorney General’s Office Election Law Unit. Those instances ended with formal letters being issued to her in 2019 and 2021. A ‘final warning’ letter issued by the Election Law Unit in September of 2021 warned Ms. Paul that all political advertising must be properly labeled as such in her publication.

Paid advertising — even political advertising — is a form of commercial speech, and thus doesn’t carry with it the same protections as other forms of speech. Nevertheless, the case against Paul seems absurd. I flipped through the most recent PDF edition of the Londonderry Times and found a couple of political ads, including the one I’ve embedded here. It’s properly labeled; I’m sure at this point Paul would just as soon avoid a seventh count. But if it didn’t say “Political Advertisement,” would you think it’s anything other than a political ad? Of course not.

At the very least, New Hampshire law ought to recognize whether there was an intent to deceive. There is obviously no deceptive intent here. And Formella has placed himself in the running for a 2023 New England Muzzle Award. Paul is scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 19. Not only should the judge immediately dismiss the charges against Paul, but they should also sanction the attorney general.

N.H.’s retiring secretary of state won a Muzzle Award and was an early Big Lie enabler

Photo (cc) 2016 by Charlene McBride

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.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

N.H. legislation would make it harder for the public to access police records

A bill filed in the New Hampshire legislature would make it more difficult for the public to access police records, reversing a recent decision by the state’s supreme court that requires greater openness. The New England First Amendment Coalition reports:

Senate Bill 39 intends to exempt police personnel files, internal investigations and other law enforcement records from the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law.

If made law, the bill would overturn a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision — Seacoast Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Portsmouth — that ruled such documents were not categorically exempt under the public records statute.

Biking in southern N.H.

We had a great time with friends Saturday on the rail trail in Salem, Windham and Derry, New Hampshire — 18 miles total. There was even a nice little outdoor lunch place along the way.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The hazards of granting anonymity, Part Infinity

fnc-20130311-scottbrownI’ll leave it to my friend John Carroll to analyze the dust-up between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald over whether former senator Scott Brown is or isn’t still working for Fox News. (Short answer: he is.) No doubt that’s coming later today.

So just a quick observation. On Wednesday the Globe’s Joshua Miller quoted an unnamed source at Fox who told him that Brown was “out of contract,” thus fueling speculation that Brown was about to jump into New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race. It turns out, according to the Herald’s Hillary Chabot and Miller’s follow-up report, that Brown was merely between contracts, and that he’s now re-upped.

If I were Miller or an editor at the Globe, I would love to be able to point to a named source at Fox for passing along information that may have been technically accurate but was not actually true. But they can’t, and that’s one of the hazards of granting anonymity.

It’s especially dangerous with Fox. According to NPR media reporter David Folkenflik’s book “Murdoch’s World,” the fair-and-balanced folks once went so far as to leak a false story to a journalist — anonymously, of course — and then denounce him in public after he reported it.

Of course, this all leads to the political question of the moment: Does this mean Brown isn’t running for senator? Or president? Or whatever office he is thought to be flirting with this week?

Update: And here comes John Carroll.

Screen image via Media Matters for America.