The result is that the SJC has set a dangerous precedent that empowers Maine officials to conduct the public’s business in secret, and circumvent the state’s Freedom of Access Act, merely by outsourcing it to independent groups of their own creation.

The majority decision, written by Justice Donald Alexander, argues that the commission members “acted as private citizens in conducting an independent investigation and giving nonbinding advice to the Attorney General.”

In a polite but strongly worded dissent, though, Justice Jon Levy wrote that the commission was a public agency by virtue of its having been created by the attorney general.

“Given the panel’s unfettered access to interview, at its discretion, the prosecutors and investigators involved in the prosecution of a high-profile murder case,” Levy wrote, “the panel was afforded a truly unique window through which to view and assess the inner workings of the Attorney General’s Department, a view that is otherwise not available to private interest groups or the public.”

Rowe’s action to remove public business from public scrutiny, now certified by the state’s highest court, makes a mockery of open government.

ROBERT WATSON
He led the fight to make anonymous political speech illegal in Rhode Island

The First Amendment not only protects the right to express oneself freely; it protects the right to do so anonymously, as well.

“Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse,” the US Supreme Court ruled in 1995. “Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views,” and “protect[s] individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”

Sadly, the trend in recent years has been to regulate political speech. One such measure is a Rhode Island law requiring that political pamphlets and negative newspaper ads identify the person or persons responsible for producing them. The law is an outrage.

But not to Robert Watson, an East Greenwich Republican who is minority leader of the Rhode Island House. When a proposal was filed to scrap the mandatory-disclosure law, Watson flipped out, going so far as to smear anonymous critics as “terrorists.”

Referring to a difficult re-election battle he had won several years earlier, Watson said on the floor of the House, “At least you knew who was firing those missiles. At least you knew who was building those bombs and lobbing them into your lap. Mr. Speaker, we’re going to have a bunch of anonymous terrorists playing in our political sandbox, and I’m not sure I agree with that.”

Watson got his way, as the measure was sent to the graveyard of a legislative committee, with politicians saying the 1995 Supreme Court ruling somehow didn’t pertain to Rhode Island.

Watson, by the way, is the state chairman of John McCain’s presidential campaign. McCain is the godfather of a campaign-finance-reform law, much praised by liberals and reformers, that, among other things, bans explicitly political ads by independent groups in the final weeks before an election.

Despite being largely upheld by the Supreme Court (in 2007 the court loosened but did not overturn the ban on independent ads), the McCain-Feingold law, as it is known, is anti-speech to its core, and it’s a shame that so many progressives support it. Political speech in all forms should be given the maximum degree of protection — not regulated to the point of toothlessness.

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