By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Waltham

AG Campbell boosts free speech for electeds, while an anti-trans shirt goes to court

Attorney General Andrea Campbell. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

A past winner of a New England Muzzle Award is in the news, while a more ambiguous case is making its way through the federal courts.

First, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell recently issued guidance stating that local elected officials have no fear of violating the state’s open meeting law if they take part in re-election activities such as debates or candidate forums where they discuss pending municipal business. Campbell’s decision follows a ruling by our Muzzle winner, Waltham City Solicitor John Cervone, that such activities would be “potentially problematic,” raising the specter that officials running for re-election would be barred from any substantive discussion of local issues.

Campbell’s guidance was hailed in a Boston Globe editorial, which noted that a similar situation had arisen in Newton. The editorial observed that Campbell gave her blessing even to situations at which a quorum of officials are present (for instance, three members of a five-member selectboard) “as long as they address their answers to the public, not to each other.” Campbell’s guidance reads in part:

The Open Meeting Law does not restrict an individual’s right to make comments to the general public, particularly as a candidate for office. Rather, it restricts communication between or among a quorum of a public body outside of a meeting; thus, the intent of the public official is an important consideration.

The Waltham and Newton restrictions were absurd, and Campbell was right to set them aside.

Second, Liam Morrison of Middleborough, Massachusetts, who as a seventh-grade student last year was banned from wearing an anti-transgender T-shirt to school, has taken his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit after losing his bid to overturn the ban in federal district court. Morrison wore a shirt that said “There Are Only Two Genders.” And when that didn’t pass muster, he returned to school with a T-shirt that said “There Are [Censored] Genders.” That earned him a trip back home as well.

According to a report by Reuters, the appeals court seemed unimpressed with Morrison’s free speech argument at a recent hearing. Here’s part of the Reuters article:

U.S. Circuit Judge Lara Montecalvo contrasted the shirt with a brochure handed out by students expressing a particular message, saying unlike those pieces of paper, a student could not throw away the shirt that Morrison was wearing.

“A T-shirt that is worn all day is worn all day,” she said. “You have to look at it, you have to read it.”

Deborah Ecker, a lawyer for the Middleborough School Committee, said the school officials’ actions were motivated by concern for the mental health of LGBTQ students, “who are captive in this classroom looking at it.”

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby sides firmly with Morrison, writing:

In court filings, Middleborough’s lawyers argue that the school was entitled to suppress Morrison’s message out of concern that it could have led to “disruption.” Yet contrary messages are permitted. No discipline was imposed when a student came to class in a “He she they, it’s all okay” T-shirt. School administrators cannot have it both ways, allowing students to express the popular side of a debatable issue but silencing those who disagree because their opinion might provoke an angry reaction. The First Amendment does not bow to the heckler’s veto.

My own opinion is that this is not as simple as Jacoby makes it seem. As Jacoby himself notes, public school students have limited free speech rights when they are on school grounds. And though there’s a certain logic to the either/or choice Jacoby presents, it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. An anti-LGBTQ message expresses animosity toward specific people, including fellow students whose orientation is something other than he or she. A pro-LGBTQ message affirms everyone’s humanity without — and this is the key — expressing any animosity toward people like Morrison who hold a different viewpoint.

Given that difference, it seems to me that Middleborough school officials got it right. Based on the Reuters report, it sounds like the appeals court is likely to agree when it issues its ruling.

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In Marblehead and Waltham, teachers and officials seek to stifle public scrutiny

In Marblehead, a number of teachers and other school staff members recently showed up at a school committee meeting to complain about public records requests filed by a nonprofit news organization that covers the town. In Waltham, the city solicitor issued what amounted to a pre-election gag order, advising city officials who were running for re-election that if they participated in candidates forums they should not address pending municipal business. These two attempts to shut down discussion of important community issues have earned the perps our latest New England Muzzle Awards (see explanation here).

First, let’s take a look at what’s going on in Marblehead. According to Ryan Vermette of the Marblehead Weekly News, the co-presidents of the teachers union, the Marblehead Education Association, said at a school committee meeting that public records requests submitted by Marblehead Current reporter Leigh Blander were costing the town money and creating a stressful situation for their members. Vermette’s article begins:

The library at Marblehead High School was standing room only at the start of the School Committee’s meeting last Thursday night as dozens of district staff stood with committee members against what they alleged was an excessive amount of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests from a local newspaper.

“Not only does this waste significant time and resources for the district, but it causes significant stress for our educators, who become the subject of these investigations, and their reputations come under attack,” Vermette quoted co-president Jonathan Heller as saying. “While the number of incidents is relatively small to date, the threat they represent is apparent.” The other co-president, Sally Shevory, was not quoted in the story.

Now. for some background, because this is a little complicated. The for-profit Marblehead Weekly News, published by The Daily Item of neighboring Lynn, is one of three independent news outlets covering the town. The Marblehead Current, where Blander works, is a nonprofit. The third, Marblehead Beacon, is a for-profit; oddly enough, Jenn Schaeffner, a founder, editor and reporter for the Beacon is also a member of the school committee. Beacon articles about the school system are appended with this: “She [Schaeffner] is recusing herself from Marblehead Beacon’s coverage of the School Committee and anything pertaining to Marblehead Public Schools.” As best as I could tell, the Beacon has made no mention of the public records issue.

Marblehead has been beset by several controversial issues involving the school system recently, including a heavily scrutinized statement by the superintendent about the war between Israel and Hamas; a bullying investigation involving a former high school soccer coach; and possible disciplinary issues involving a former superintendent. If you’d like, you can read all the details in a Current editorial responding to the public records matter. What’s relevant is that the Current is being called out by union leaders and school officials for trying to hold them to account through their journalism. As Blander said in a statement to the Weekly News: “In pursuit of our mission to foster democratic participation by informing our readers about important issues, including those that impact students and their families, the Current seeks to make responsible use of the public records laws.”

What’s more, there is no evidence that the Current has abused the public records law by filing an inordinate number of requests. According to the editorial, “Since our launch in June 2022, we have filed 15 public records requests, 14 of which have been directed to the School Department.” Eleven of those were related to the departure of the previous superintendent. To be fair, school officials determined that a recent request for records about complaints against teachers would have required poring over nearly 477,000 emails, and that the Current would be assessed $50,000. But as the editorial put it: “As should have been obvious, the Current was not seeking to commission such a voluminous and intrusive search. We agree that would not be the best use of school employees’ time (or our money). Moving forward, if we inadvertently submit overly broad records requests to record keepers, we hope our partners in public service would simply call us and ask, ‘What are you really looking for? Can we find a way to respond without overburdening our staff?'” The editorial concluded:

Our school officials have to realize, though, that if what they are asking is essentially “stop asking so many questions,” we view that prescription as a non-starter. While we will take better care to make our requests more targeted and less burdensome, we will continue to use the public records law to seek answers we believe the public deserves.

The public records law exists so that members of the public — and the press, acting as representatives of the public — can hold government accountable. This particular Muzzle Award goes not to any particular individual but, rather, to union officials and the school committee as a whole for promoting an atmosphere suggesting that they know best, and that the prying eyes of the press are not welcome.


In Waltham, meanwhile, City Solicitor John Cervone has earned a Muzzle for issuing a ruling calling it “potentially problematic” if elected members of the city council who were participating in candidates forums addressed issues that were currently under consideration. This is an absurd restriction, since a challenger would be free to discuss such issues freely while the incumbent would be forced to sit there and say nothing except “upon the advice of counsel blah blah blah.” As a Boston Globe editorial put it:

The opinion appears to be based on vague — and somewhat shaky — legal grounds, and state officials ought to swat it down before the idea spreads. Some candidates in Waltham have understood it as a gag order in the heat of election season, a curb on political candidates’ speech at multicandidate forums that makes it harder for voters to make educated choices.

Justin Silverman, a lawyer who’s the executive director of the New England First Amendment Association, was quoted as saying that Cervone’s opinion appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of the state’s open meeting law. “If there isn’t a quorum present at public events, then it’s not a violation under the open meeting law,” Silverman said. No doubt — and yet it’s more than theoretically possible that a quorum of council members could be present at a candidates forum if they were all running for re-election.

A mayoral candidate, City Councilor Jonathan Paz, said Cervone’s opinion created a “chilling effect,” adding, “We as candidates are supposed to be candid, we’re supposed to be transparent about our values and our positions on certain matters.” And wouldn’t you know it: Paz lost his challenge to incumbent Mayor Jeannette McCarthy by a wide margin. No doubt it’s a stretch to say that the gag order hurt Paz’s campaign — but surely it didn’t help.

The Globe editorial notes that a similar issue arose in Newton four years ago. It’s time to clarify the law so that muncipal lawyers in other communities don’t travel down a similar censorious path.

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Don’t drink the water!

Along the Charles River in Waltham. Maybe my last long bike ride of 2023 — it’s going to get cold this week, and then we turn back the clocks an hour. Time to reacquaint myself with the joys of hiking in the Middlesex Fells.

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Biking with the AMC

Twenty-three-mile ride along the Charles out to Waltham and back. On the way home, I ran into about two dozen bikers from the Appalachian Mountain Club. I’m a member, so I’m going to have to check out their events. Anyway, I rode with them  to Alewife Station before splitting off to head back. Great people, plus they showed me the best connection between the Watertown-Cambridge Greenway and the river.

AMC riders near Fresh Pond

Waltham ride

Twenty-three-mile bike ride to Waltham and back. I believe this is the Waltham Watch Factory, which has been redeveloped as luxury housing and dining.

Click for a larger, sharper image

Riding through the woods of Watertown and Waltham

On Saturday I rode my bike from Soldiers Field Road, across from WBZ-TV, to the end of the Charles River trail in Waltham center. I hadn’t previously made it past Bridge Street in Watertown, so I had no idea that, as you keep traveling west, you’re largely in the woods, riding on dirt paths and elevated wooden sections. It was hot — low 90s by the time I got back — but mostly shaded and not that humid. I did a 15-mile loop; next time, I’ll try riding from home, which might bring it up as far as 25 miles.

Waltham daily will be cut to twice weekly

The Daily News Tribune of Waltham will cut back from five days a week to two just before Labor Day and publish under a more locally focused name: the Waltham News Tribune. The move was announced earlier today on the paper’s website.

Starting Aug. 31, the paper will come out on Tuesdays and Fridays, although publisher Greg Reibman was quoted as saying the goal is to prove daily coverage online and through a new mobile app.

“We will be all Waltham, all the time,” Reibman said, explaining that the paper will no longer cover Newton.

The News Tribune is published by Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, most of them weeklies. In an internal e-mail obtained by Media Nation, Rick Daniels, president and CEO of GateHouse’s New England group, compared the move to a similar one made last October, when the Daily Transcript of Dedham was cut back from five days a week to one and renamed the Dedham Transcript.

“We’re confident this approach, coupled with our website, will make the Waltham News Tribune more valuable and useful to Waltham residents and our advertisers,” Daniels said.

GateHouse, a national chain, is under considerable financial strain, as are virtually all newspaper companies (although things may be looking up a bit). The twice-weekly move probably isn’t one that company officials wanted to make. But from a business point of view, it makes sense to cut production costs and shift advertising into just two editions rather than five if it can be done without alienating readers.

If the company follows through on its online and mobile promises, then this will look smart.

The full text of Daniels’ e-mail follows:

As you all know, we are continuously evaluating our publishing strategies in each of our communities to make sure we are the most efficient and effective local news source in the market.

Last October, for example, we changed The Daily News Transcript from a five-day daily newspaper to a weekly newspaper, Dedham Transcript, while putting a new focus on a redesigned Norwood Transcript as well. That decision turned out to be a big win, especially in Dedham where, with special thanks to the efforts of editor Andrea Salisbury and our circulation eam, we’ve steadily grown our subscription base as well as single copy sales since the launch.

Later this summer, we will be making a similar move in Waltham, only with one significant variation. On Friday, Aug. 27 we will deliver the last issue of The Daily News Tribune and, instead, focus on producing a high-quality twice-weekly paper, to be called the Waltham News Tribune.

The newly designed Waltham News Tribune will arrive at doorsteps and on newsstands every Tuesday and Friday. In contrast to the Daily News Tribune, which currently includes coverage of Newton and Watertown, along with non-local content such as Associated Press stories, comics and other syndicated features, the new twice-weekly paper will focus exclusively on Waltham.

We’re confident this approach, coupled with our website, will make the Waltham News Tribune more valuable and useful to Waltham residents and our advertisers. We chose Tuesday and Friday as our two publishing days based on the news and advertising needs of our readers and customers. We anticipate the Tuesday edition will include city council coverage, weekend sports and breaking news, while the Friday edition is likely to include additional areas of coverage such as upcoming weekend entertainment and features. In addition, the Tuesday edition will carry our “WickedLocalJobs” section and the Friday edition will carry our “WickedLocalWheels” section.

By working closely with the production and circulation groups, we’ve been able to develop a plan that will allow us to handle pre-printed inserts in both the Tuesday and Friday editions while getting the newspaper to newsstands by lunch time each day. This will help in driving single copy sales. Please know that we are not trimming our editorial or sports staff as part of this change. Andy Merritt, the Tribune’s current night editor, will be the new paper’s editor. Scott Souza will remain the sports editor and will also continue in his role as GateHouse’s beat reporter covering the Boston Celtics. Editorial oversight for Waltham will be transferred to the Metro Unit, with Greg Reibman as publisher, and Kat Powers as managing editor.

In the next few weeks we will contact all Daily News Tribune newsdealers of this change and will inform subscribers that their account balance will be transferred in full to a new twice-weekly subscription. Our call center will be fully prepared to help resolve all concerns to our customer’s satisfaction. If you receive any home delivery questions before that, please refer them our customer service department at 1-888-MYPAPER. Local news continues to be the mission of GateHouse Media New England, and we’ll continue to evaluate and improve all facets of our business to strengthen our position as the premier provider of local news and information, both in print and online in Eastern Massachusetts.

At one point in time, some might have wondered whether our local mission might have been too limited to enable us to be highly relevant to our readers, advertisers and the communities we serve as well as be consequential and successful as a business enterprise. In the last several months, several competitors have emerged that are entirely focused on the hyper-local news, information and advertising markets – not because these markets are somehow “small” or “insignificant”, but because they are hugely consequential in being able to support a viable publishing company – whether print, the digital media or (as we do) both. These competitors actually affirm that we ARE in the best part of the media world. They also have to realize that this company has been at this business for a long time, and enjoys a market position that will be extraordinarily difficult to crack.

Here are four compelling numbers that help to tell the GateHouse New England story, circa 2010: 1.7 million, 3 million, well over $100 million and 400. These numbers represent, respectively: The size of our Massachusetts print audience, the number of unique visitors per month to our websites, the size of our revenue base and the number of full-time professional journalists we employ. The levels of attainment these numbers signify places us at or near the top of the rankings of Massachusetts media companies. The economy has been a huge challenge for all businesses, and most especially media businesses, but we not only “survived” the Great Recession, but have seen our advertising revenues actually start to GROW again (albeit slowly with the continued economic cloudiness) in five out of the first six months of 2010. Thank you all very much for what you have done and continue to do to allow us to do what all companies MUST do in order to be successful: serve an identifiable and attractive niche with quality products and services, grow our revenues and customer base, become ever more efficient and generate sufficient cash flow. We know that staying on top of a fast-evolving industry is incredibly challenging and requires business model changes that can be a bit jarring. We have not averred from these changes, and this latest one with the Waltham News Tribune is one more example that will allow us to be both more focused on providing hyper-local news to the Waltham community AND be more efficient as well.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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