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Tag: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

How our shameful public records law is affecting the Karen Read murder trial

Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2015 by Upstateherd.

The murder trial of Karen Read is, without question, one of the strangest spectacles we’ve seen in Massachusetts for a long time.

Read has been charged with driving over her boyfriend, former Boston police officer John O’Keefe, and leaving him to die in a snowbank. Read counters that she’s being framed — that, in fact, O’Keefe was beaten up, bitten by a dog and dragged outside. Adding to all of this is a murky federal investigation of the Norfolk County district attorney’s office and the involvement of Aiden Kearney, the Turtleboy blogger who has taken up Read’s cause and who’s been charged with witness intimidation and illegal wiretapping.

In one sense, though, it’s a very familiar story. Crucially important evidence is being withheld from the public because of our state’s restrictive public records laws. As Sean Cotter reports in The Boston Globe, autopsy reports are not considered public records in Massachusetts. We’re not unique in that regard. Citing information from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Cotter writes that among the very few states where autopsy records are considered public are Alabama, Colorado, California and Florida.

“If the public cannot see the documents that judges rely on in the course of making decisions, the public cannot make decisions on whether the judge’s decisions are correct,” First Amendment lawyer Jeffrey Pyle told the Globe.

The Norfolk DA’s office turned down the Globe’s public records request, with spokesman David Traub telling the paper, “The examination and cross-examination of the medical examiner will be where you get your answers.”

Massachusetts has long had a reputation for being among the worst states with regard to open government. About a decade ago, the Center for Public Integrity gave the state a D-plus in an overall accountability score as well as an F for public access to information. The state’s public records law was strengthened in 2016, but it remains woefully inadequate.

So let’s give a New England Muzzle Award to the Massachusetts legislature for failing to take any meaningful action to ensure that the public’s business will be conducted in public. The autopsy report on Officer O’Keefe’s death should be made public — and that’s just a small part of the much larger problem that our elected officials would rather operate in the dark than let the light shine in.

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A Mass. judge weighs whether to compel a journalist to turn over her interview notes

Photo (cc) 2017 by Allen Allen

An important press freedom case is playing out in a Dedham courtroom, where a prosecutor has asked a judge to force a reporter for Boston magazine to turn over her interview notes.

The magazine reporter, Gretchen Voss, wrote a lengthy article last September about Karen Read, a Mansfield woman who’s been charged with second-degree murder in the 2022 death of her boyfriend, Boston Police Officer John O’Keefe. The case is massively complicated and has become emotionally fraught, as supporters of Read have accused authorities of staging an elaborate coverup. Essentially, though, Read has been charged with running over O’Keefe with her SUV while under the influence of alcohol and leaving him to die in a snowbank. Read and her supporters counter that O’Keefe was severely beaten inside the Canton home of a fellow officer and dragged outside, where he died.

Ironically, a hearing into whether Voss would be compelled to turn over the notes of her interviews with Read was held on the same day that Congress took a rare bipartisan step toward granting journalists the right to protect their sources. More about that below.

According to an account by Ivy Scott and Travis Andersen in The Boston Globe, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey has asked Superior Court Judge Beverly Cannone to demand that Voss cooperate with the prosecution by producing her notes of what Read told her off the record. Voss replied that she would be willing to testify about the article that Boston published, but that going beyond that would be a violation of her First Amendment right to protect her sources. The magazine’s attorney, First Amendment lawyer Robert Bertsche, said the prosecution was demanding that Voss help them compile evidence to help with their case, “which was outside the scope of the law,” as the Globe summarized Bertsche’s argument.

“You can be sure if Karen Read confessed in her interview with Gretchen Voss,” Bertsche added, “that would have made it into the article.”

The Globe also quoted Assistant District Attorney Adam Lally as saying that there is “no reporter privilege in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” That’s true, but it’s also complicated.

Massachusetts is one of 49 states that offer some protection to journalists to protect their sources, either through a shield law or rulings by their state’s courts. (Wyoming, by the way, is the sole exception.) There is no shield law in Massachusetts, nor has the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ever ruled that there is a reporter’s privilege. But according to an overview compiled by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), the courts in Massachusetts have recognized that journalists may have a limited right to protect their sources. The overview begins:

Massachusetts does not have a shield law, and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has not been willing to recognize a reporter’s privilege under either the Massachusetts or U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, Massachusetts courts have been willing to use a common law balancing test based on general First Amendment principles to protect reporters’ confidential sources in some circumstances.

That balancing test is about as good as it gets in any state, since the reporter’s privilege is not absolute. Way back in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Branzburg v. Hayes that the First Amendment provides no such protection, although the convoluted ruling suggested that judges should balance concerns about press freedom with the need to compel testimony. What will happen in the Karen Read prosecution is that Judge Cannone will decide whether the information Voss has is so important to the case, and unobtainable from any other non-journalistic source, that she should be compelled to turn it over.

A complicating factor is that no journalist would cooperate with such a demand, leading to the possibility that Voss could be held in contempt of court. One of the more notable Massachusetts examples of that took place in 1985, when WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reporter Susan Wornick narrowly avoided a three-month jail sentence when the source she was protecting in a police corruption case came forward and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

As anyone who’s been following the Karen Read case knows, I’m only chipping away at a tiny piece of it. Also on Thursday, Read’s lawyers argued that correspondence between District Attorney Morrissey and the U.S. attorney’s office should be made public and that Morrissey should be disqualified. Federal authorities are investigating how the district attorney’s office has handled the case, although the nature of their investigation has not been made public.

Finally, blogger Aidan Kearney, who goes by Turtleboy, and who has taken Read’s side, is currently being held in custody on charges of witness intimidation and domestic assault and battery. Kearney and his supporters claim those charges were filed in retaliation for his crusade on Read’s behalf.

As I wrote up top, all of this is playing out against the background of a positive step taken by Congress. Despite the existence of some shield protections in 49 states, there is no shield law at the federal level. On Thursday, though, the House unanimously passed the PRESS Act, which the the RCFP describes as “a bipartisan federal reporter’s shield law that would protect journalists from being forced to name their sources in federal court and would stop the federal government from spying on journalists through their technology providers.” The sole exceptions, according to a summary of the bill, would be in “limited circumstances such as to prevent terrorism or imminent violence.”

Given that the Republican House was able to act for all its dysfunction, there would appear to be reason for optimism that the Senate will approve the measure as well.

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Kansas publisher tells SPJ: ‘We might even report a little more aggressively because of this’

What is the role of a community newspaper? Is it to be loved? Or is it to hold the local power structure to account?

Maybe it’s a little bit of both, according to Eric Meyer, publisher and editor of the Marion County Record, the Kansas weekly that was recently subjected to a police raid on its office, on the home Meyer shared with his mother, retired Record publisher Joan Meyer, and the city’s vice mayor. Joan Meyer, 98, died the day after the raid, possibly due to stress stemming from the assault on her home.

Authorities, who apparently broke federal law in conducting the raid without first obtaining a subpoena, were supposedly seeking documents that it claimed the Record had illegally downloaded from a state website. The Record says it was on solid legal ground, and a state prosecutor ordered that the documents be returned to the paper. But the Record was also reporting on allegations of sexual harassment by Police Chief Gideon Cody in his previous job at the Kansas City Police Department, which may have been the real motivation the raid.

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Meyer, Record reporter Deb Gruver and Gabe Rottman, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which put together a letter signed by news organizations and press-freedom organizations, spoke last week at a virtual event organized by the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, moderated by SPJ national president Claire Regan. You can watch the entire conversation above, but here are some edited and condensed highlights.

Eric Meyer

On a home security video that shows Joan Meyer yelling at the officers who’d invaded her home, getting up in their faces and calling two of them “assholes”: “If you watch the video clip, you would say that’s a formidable woman. And she was also a very kind and gentle person who loved to help people and everything else. But she saw an injustice and she was angry about it.”

On Cody’s motives in ordering the raid: “The chief motivation is that Deb Gruver had information about him from his former co-workers that indicated he probably was somebody you wouldn’t want to have hired. To our discredit, we did not run the story [until after the raid]. We never could get anyone named on the record. This is a guy who went from Kansas City, Missouri, earning $110,000 a year, supervising dozens of people, to Marion, Kansas, supervising two people and earning $60,000 a year. You don’t usually take a $50,000-a-year pay cut, and a huge reduction in supervision, one year before you could have retired from the Kansas City Police Department. So there’s a lot of suspicion here.”

On reports such as this one in The New York Times that some people in Marion thought the Record was overly negative in its coverage: “If negative things happen, you’re going to have a lot of negative news in the paper. It is a little difficult because you have to live in the community. And I’ve been accused of trying to kill the town — that I came back here to kill the town. Well, what newspaper owner would ever want to kill the town that their newspaper is in? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Deb Gruver

On having her cellphone physically taken from her and being forced to stand outside in the heat while officers searched the Record’s office: “I poked my head in and said, ‘Hey, it’s hot out here.’ And we’re sweating. And I’m not feeling very well. And he [one of the officers] said, ‘Yeah, you don’t look very good.’ So I said, ‘In the bottom drawer, there should be some bubbly water or whatever. Can you find it? I’d like to get something to drink.’ And it takes 20 minutes for him to get permission from Chief Cody to do that. I’m 56. I have hot flashes. My blood sugar was down because I hadn’t had anything to eat. There was no compassion shown at all. They were just enjoying that little bit of tiny power that they thought they had for a minute. And I despise him [Cody] now. I mean, I didn’t like him from the get-go. But I’m afraid of him. I’ll be honest, I’m afraid of him. I think that he is capable of doing something far worse to me. And I don’t feel great about being anywhere where he’s going to be.”

Gabe Rottman

On how unusual the raid on the Record was: “It’s kind of an odd case where the underlying facts are slightly immaterial, in the sense that these raids are so exceptionally rare that we don’t even track them. I can think of maybe four or five incidents that are possibly similar. Unless it was a journalist at the newspaper who was involved in criminal activity, unrelated to news, this just doesn’t happen. There’s a federal law in place, the Privacy Protection Act, which limits searches. There is no subpoena-first rule when you’re talking about reporting. You can only get it if you’ve got probable cause that the target committed a crime, and the crime can’t be related to news-gathering, with exceptions for national security leaks and a couple of others, neither of which are applicable here.”

Eric Meyer

On what’s next for the Record: “We’re going to publish the newspaper, and we’re going to still report the news. We might even report a little more aggressively because of this. I like to tell our staff, ‘We’re not competing with Facebook, we’re not even competing with another publication. We’re competing with Netflix. We’ve got to have something that is worth somebody’s time to read.’ And we’ve tried to do that. Our average website visit lasts about 10 and a half minutes, which, if you talk to most of the people who record such things, is a pretty phenomenal number. It’s better than The New York Times gets. And we try to give you something good solid that you can sit down with and enjoy reading.”

Earlier coverage.

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Kansas police chief claims secret information to justify newspaper raid

On Sunday, The New York Times and The Washington Post finally picked up on the police raid targeting the office of the Marion County Record as well as the publisher’s and vice mayor’s home. The action against the Kansas newspaper — illegal on its face under federal law since officials had not obtained a subpoena — has sparked a growing outcry, and may have led to the death of the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner, Joan Meyer.

The Post story, by Sofia Andrade and Paul Farhi, led with Meyer’s death. The Times story, by Stephen Lee Myers and Benjamin Mullin, weirdly saved that detail for the kicker. As I’ve written previously, Joan Meyer was at home Friday when police burst in and, according to her son, editor Eric Meyer, collapsed and died the following day after a sleepless, stress-filled night.

The Times quotes Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody as defending the raid, saying, “I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.” The story adds that Cody declined to provide any additional information.

This is, of course, the classic defense by small-minded people with a little bit of power: If you knew what I know, then you’d know what I know. It’s ridiculous, and of course there’s nothing to stop Cody from sharing enough information to explain why he thought it necessary to seize computers, cellphones and financial records without even bothering to seek a subpoena, as required under the federal Privacy Protection Act.

The investigation was supposedly related to documents the Record had obtained about the drunken driving arrest of a local caterer, but that seems pretty unlikely. More to the point is that, according to Eric Meyer, the paper was looking into sexual misconduct allegations involving Chief Cody at his previous position in Kansas City, Missouri, from which he retired.

In other developments:

• The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has published an open letter to Chief Cody signed by 34 media and press freedom groups to “condemn” the raid, stating in part:

Based on public reporting, the search warrant that has been published online, and your public statements to the press, there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search — particularly when other investigative steps may have been available — and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcements ability to conduct newsroom searches. We urged you to immediately return the seized material to the Record, to purge any records that may already have been accessed, and to initiate a full independent and transparent review of your department’s actions.

Among the signatories: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

• Eric Meyer plans to file a federal lawsuit over the raid, according to Sara Fischer and Rebecca Falconer of Axios.

Earlier:

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Globe journalist forced to testify despite First Amendment concerns

Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston. Photo (cc) 2017 by Beyond My Ken.

A Boston Globe journalist was forced to testify Tuesday in U.S. District Court in a case involving the Harvard admissions scandal. According to the Globe’s Shelley Murphy, politics editor Joshua Miller briefly took the witness stand and attested to the accuracy of quotes in an April 2019 article for which he interviewed the defendant, Jie “Jack” Zhao. Zhao has been charged with purchasing a Needham home at an inflated price owned by then-Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand so that Zhao’s two sons would be admitted to Harvard.

Miller’s compelled participation raises troubling First Amendment issues. Miller testified after a federal judge ruled against his motion to quash a subpoena. That’s not especially surprising. When faced with the prospect of requiring a journalist to testify, judges usually are more likely to rule against the journalist in a criminal case rather than in a civil matter, and they are more likely to rule against the journalist if they are not being ordered to reveal a confidential source. In this case, prosecutors merely sought Miller’s testimony so that they could enter his article into the record.

Nevertheless, the Globe’s lawyer, Jonathan Albano, cited in his motion to quash “the widespread recognition that the First Amendment protects journalists from the needless disclosure of sources, investigative techniques, and both confidential and non-confidential work product.”

Miller’s case also was the subject of a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 40 other media and legal organizations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Dow Jones, the First Amendment Coalition, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Gannett, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, McClatchy, MediaNews Group, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the NewsGuild, The New York Times, the Society of Professional Journalists, Tribune Publishing and others.

The Reporters Committee brief was submitted by First Amendment lawyer Robert Bertsche of the Boston firm Klaris Law. Perhaps the most notable aspect of his brief is that he observes the subpoena was not limited to asking that Miller attest to the accuracy of his article but, rather, was “open-ended.” In other words, if Miller was on the witness stand and was unexpectedly asked about confidential sources or reporting methods, he would either have to answer or refuse and thereby risk being held in contempt of court. Bertsche wrote:

Compelling reporters to testify about their communications with sources — even on-the-record, nonconfidential conversations — harms the newsgathering and reporting process, to the ultimate detriment of the public. It embroils reporters in time-consuming litigation and diverts news organizations’ already scarce resources away from newsgathering and reporting — burdens that weigh especially heavily on journalists who regularly investigate and report on matters that could involve potential criminal activity, and thus whose interviews and other work product could regularly be the target of federal prosecutors. Moreover, enforcement of subpoenas like the one at issue here threatens to erode public trust in the independence of the news media by creating the misimpression that journalists are an investigative arm of prosecutors and courts. That risk is particularly acute in situations where, as here, a journalist’s testimony is sought in connection with a criminal investigation launched after publication of the relevant reporting. Simply put, enforcement of government subpoenas that seek to compel journalists like Mr. Miller to testify in criminal trials risks making reporters’ existing and potential sources—both confidential and non-confidential — more reluctant to speak candidly, or simply unwilling to speak at all.

As I noted recently, Miller was subpoenaed not long after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland was hailed for announcing that reporters would no longer be compelled to testify in leak cases involving national security. This may be a matter of apples and oranges, but it’s notable that the stakes involved in demanding Miller’s testimony are considerably lower than the standard that Garland articulated. Yet that didn’t stop a judge from dragging a journalist into court.

Should a media defendant be able to keep sources confidential in a libel suit?

Everett Square circa 1905. Photo is in the public domain.

Adam Gaffin has a wild story in Universal Hub about a lawsuit filed against the Everett Leader Herald and the city clerk by Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria. There are all kinds of entertaining details. Among other things, we learn that the Leader Herald “has referred to DeMaria as ‘kickback Carlo,’ said he is ‘on the take,’ and referred to ‘DCF,’ or ‘DeMaria’s Crime Family.’”

What caught my eye, though, was that the Leader Herald has agreed to go along with a court order to identify 10 of 12 confidential sources. The names had previously been given to Superior Court Judge James Budreau, who ruled that their claim to anonymity was weak. In the following excerpt from Budreau’s opinion, Resnek is a reference to Joshua Resnek, the publisher and editor.

A threshold question facing the Court is whether Defendants have insufficiently supported their claim that the 12 sources used by Resnik [sic] in the articles core to this litigation were given a promised [sic] of confidentiality in exchange for their information…. Defendant Resnek subsequently filed an affidavit which states that all the sources at issue had “provided information to me based on the promise/understanding that their names/identities would not be revealed and would be kept confidential.” Not only does this averment lack specificity for each of the 11 [?] alleged confidential sources, but it’s unclear whether each source was promised or merely understood or believed that their identities would not be disclosed. If they understood, what was the basis of their understanding?

In other words, the judge concluded that Resnek failed to make a strong case that the sources had been granted confidentiality in the first place. Perhaps that will take the sting out of Resnek’s decision to go along with the judge’s order and allow those sources to be publicly identified.

The problem of keeping sources confidential in a libel case is reminiscent of a dilemma that The Boston Globe faced in 2002, when the paper was sued by Dr. Lois Ayash for incorrectly identifying her as the “leader of a team” that signed off on an overdose of an experimental chemotherapy drug that was given to two patients at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. One of those patients was Globe reporter Betsy Lehman, who died as a result of the overdose.

In that case, the Globe refused an order by Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat to reveal his confidential sources. Lauriat ruled that, because Ayash did not have the evidence she needed to pursue her suit — evidence to which she was entitled as a matter of law — then she should win her case by default.

“The Boston Globe, long a champion of the freedom of information and of unfettered access to public (and even not-so-public) records, has unilaterally and unnecessarily interrupted the free flow of information that may be critical to Ayash,” Lauriat wrote, according to an account by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. A jury awarded her $2 million, a judgment that was upheld by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2005.

Richard Knox, the Globe reporter whose story was at issue in Ayash’s libel suit, thought the court should have respected his promise not to identify his confidential sources. “I’m disappointed that the courts don’t understand that honoring commitments to sources goes to the heart of what journalists do every day,” he was quoted as saying.

But though Knox and the Globe may have acted out of principle, they were mistaken to think that should have come without a cost. In fact, there is no ironclad legal right for journalists to protect their confidential sources. I’d say that Judge Lauriat made the right call in demanding that the Globe give up its sources; after all, Ayash was entitled to make her best case. The Globe also made the right call, expensive though it was, by saying no.

The situation in Everett, by contrast, is weird and hard to parse. Is Resnek really breaking a promise of confidentiality if the guarantees he made to his sources were not plainly stated, as Judge Budreau suggests? Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what those sources have to say.

Project Veritas is at the vortex of two cases that threaten the First Amendment

James O’Keefe of Project Veritas. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

A pair of legal battles involving Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group known for recording its victims on hidden camera and then deceptively editing what they said, have raised a couple of dicey First Amendment issues.

The first involves FBI raids against James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, as well as against his associates. The raids were connected to the alleged theft of a diary kept by President Biden’s daughter Ashley, even though Veritas did not publish anything from the diary and ended up turning it over to law enforcement.

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As Josh Gerstein writes in Politico, the raids “are prompting alarm from some First Amendment advocates, who contend that prosecutors appear to have run roughshod over Justice Department media policies and a federal law protecting journalists.” He quotes longtime First Amendment advocate Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as saying:

This is just beyond belief. I’m not a big fan of Project Veritas, but this is just over the top. I hope they get a serious reprimand from the court because I think this is just wrong.

Maybe, maybe not. Project Veritas is entitled to the protections afforded to any journalistic organization, no matter how sleazy. The question, as Gerstein observes, is whether Veritas did anything illegal in obtaining the diary.

For instance, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden all broke the law in obtaining secret documents, and they all paid a high price for their actions. The news organizations that published those documents, though, were not prosecuted because there was no evidence they had participated in those crimes. (Julian Assange of Wikileaks is a special case. Source or publisher? Passive recipient or active participant in the theft of classified information? I’ll leave those questions aside for today.)

What we don’t know about the Project Veritas case is whether the government is claiming that O’Keefe and his crew were participants in the theft of the diary. If that’s what they’re charged with, then the First Amendment doesn’t come into play — and I suspect that’s what we’re going to find out. Absent such a claim, though, the actions of the FBI would indeed represent a grave threat to freedom of the press.

The second, and more serious, case involves a libel suit that Project Veritas filed against The New York Times. In a proceeding not directly related to the libel claim, Veritas argued that documents the Times published violated the group’s right to attorney-client privilege. That led to an extraordinary order, reported by Michael D. Grynbaum in the Times:

On Thursday, the trial court judge, Charles D. Wood of State Supreme Court in Westchester County, ordered that The Times “immediately sequester, protect and refrain” from disseminating any of the materials prepared by the Project Veritas lawyer. Furthermore, Justice Wood instructed The Times to “cease further efforts to solicit or acquire” those materials, effectively preventing the newspaper from reporting on the matter.

This is censorship — prior restraint. I’m sure Judge Wood has a law degree, but anyone who’s taken an undergraduate First Amendment course knows this is unconstitutional. Under the Near v. Minnesota standard, the government may not engage in prior restraint except in a few narrowly drawn instances: incitement to violence, serious breaches of national security and obscenity. By contrast, the reasons for restraining the Times in the Project Veritas case are trivial. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way:

This is the first prior restraint entered against the New York Times since the Pentagon Papers, and it is an outrageous affront to the First Amendment.

Prior restraints — which are orders not to publish — are among the most serious threats to press freedom. The trial court should have never entered this order. If it doesn’t immediately vacate the prior restraint, an appellate court must step in and do so.

Two cases, two very different sets of facts. As I said, we’ll have to wait and see on the first case, which might prove to be no big deal. The second case, though, strikes me as a reflection of the low esteem in which the media are held these days. A protection that has allowed news organizations to publish secret government documents as long as they don’t put the country at risk is now being flouted by a state judge for the flimsiest of reasons.

SJC rules that deception in recording someone does not violate the law

Joe Curtatone. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Somerville Media Center.

The state Supreme Judicial Court on Monday issued an important — and, to me at least, surprising — clarification of the Massachusetts wiretapping law, ruling that it’s not necessary to obtain someone’s consent before recording them. All that’s needed, the court said, is to inform the second party that they’re being recorded. That doesn’t change even if the person making the recording lies about their identity. Here’s Travis Andersen’s account in The Boston Globe.

The case involves Kirk Minihane of Barstool Sports, who in 2019 recorded an interview with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone by claiming to be Globe columnist Kevin Cullen. Minihane then played the interview on his podcast. Curtatone sued, arguing that he would not have agreed to being recorded if he had known he was speaking with Minihane rather than Cullen. Justice Frank M. Gaziano writes:

Minihane did not secretly hear or record the challenged communication within the meaning of the act, because the plaintiff knew throughout the call that his words were being heard and recorded. The identity of the party recording the communication or, indeed, the truthfulness with which that identity was asserted is irrelevant; rather, it is the act of hearing or recording itself that must be concealed to fall within the prohibition against “interception” within the act.

And here’s Gaziano’s conclusion:

Because Minihane did not secretly record his conversation with the plaintiff, the challenged recording does not fall within the statutory definition of an “interception” within the meaning of the Commonwealth’s wiretap act. The plaintiff thus has not made factual assertions sufficient to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.

The first indication of where the case might be headed came earlier this year, when the ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief in support of Minihane and Barstool.

Massachusetts has often been described as a “two-party consent” state when it comes to recording conversations. But even before Minihane recorded Curtatone, it was clear in some legal circles that the word “consent” was misleading. For instance, here is an explanation of the law published several years ago by the now-defunct Digital Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society:

Massachusetts’s wiretapping law often referred to is a “two-party consent” law. More accurately, Massachusetts makes it a crime to secretly record a conversation, whether the conversation is in-person or taking place by telephone or another medium…. Accordingly, if you are operating in Massachusetts, you should always inform all parties to a telephone call or conversation that you are recording, unless it is absolutely clear to everyone involved that you are recording (i.e., the recording is not “secret”). Under Massachusetts’s wiretapping law, if a party to a conversation is aware that you are recording and does not want to be recorded, it is up to that person to leave the conversation.

Even after Monday’s SJC ruling, the law in Massachusetts remains unusually strict. According to the law firm Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, 38 states plus the District of Columbia merely have a “one-party consent” law. Since the person making the recording has obviously given their consent, that means recording someone secretly in those states is legally permissible.

I tell my students that if they want to record an interview, whether in person or by phone, to ask for the subject’s consent. Then, after they turn on their recorder, tell them that they’re now recording and ask if that’s all right. That way, not only do they have the interview subject’s permission, but they have that permission on record. Minihane’s victory doesn’t change the ethics of recording someone without their knowledge.

One aspect of Monday’s ruling worth thinking about is that two-party consent, even under a looser definition of “consent,” can make it harder to engage in certain types of investigative reporting. Minihane obviously was just recording Curtatone for entertainment purposes. But undercover reporting, though less common than it used to be (thanks in part to the Food Lion case), can be a crucial tool in holding the powerful to account.

In Massachusetts, it remains illegal for a reporter to secretly record someone. The SJC’s decision doesn’t change that.

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At GateHouse, as elsewhere, the rich get richer

Kirk Davis

Seems like it’s been ages since I last wrote about GateHouse Media, the financially challenged Fairport, N.Y.-based company that owns about 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts.

Things may be more quiet than they were a year ago, but rumblings of dissension persist. Several anonymous employees sent this along, detailing some mighty nice bonuses top GateHouse officials paid themselves to publish understaffed newspapers run by overworked, low-paid journalists.

Leading the parade is chief executive Michael Reed, who got $500,000. Taking the silver, with $250,000, was president and chief operating officer Kirk Davis, a top GateHouse official in Massachusetts before decamping for upstate New York last year.

It’s an old story. Ordinary people work hard for short money while the folks at the top reward themselves. Reed and Davis are managing a difficult situation, and it may well be that they deserve to be compensated handsomely just for keeping GateHouse alive. Then, too, their situation is hardly unique.

Just a few days ago we learned that Joseph Lodovic IV, president of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews chain, was receiving a $500,000 bonus for the bang-up job he did putting together a structured-bankruptcy plan. That may be the way of the world. But such tidbits can be pretty hard to swallow for those who actually cover late-night meetings and give up their weekends to photograph local events.

In other GateHouse news, here is a weird story involving a reporter for the company’s Dodge City Daily Globe, in Kansas, who was fired in the midst of a legal dispute over whether she should testify about her confidential source in a murder case.

I’m going to have to side with management on this one. The reason: Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells the Topeka Capital-Journal that the reporter, Claire O’Brien, refused to show up in court to answer the subpoena she’d received.

“What she did was really stick a thumb in the judge’s eye today,” Dalglish is quoted as saying. “Even if you’re not going to answer questions, you still have to go to court.”

Media Nation Rule No. 57: If Lucy Dalglish doesn’t stand up for you on a freedom-of-the-press issue, then you’re wrong.

Tuesday evening update: Dalglish takes a rather different stance on the RCFP Web site, saying she finds O’Brien’s termination “unusual” and “quite disturbing.” An Associated Press account of what happened is worth reading, too.

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