Photo-illustrations by Caitlin Musso
For anyone who’s been paying attention, President Barack Obama’s disappointing record on free speech, civil liberties, and governmental transparency is old news.
This year, though, is special. Obama’s longstanding lack of respect for the role of a free press in a democratic society reached new depths when it was revealed that his Justice Department had snooped on the Associated Press and Fox News’ James Rosen in trying to ferret out leakers.
Then came the überleaker — Edward Snowden, a private contractor who holed himself up in Hong Kong and provided The Guardian and The Washington Post with documents showing that the National Security Agency
was monitoring our phone traffic, our emails, and other communications on a scale more massive than previously imagined. The revelations were not entirely new, but they came at a time when many are starting to feel ambivalent about giving up their privacy in return for vague hopes of more security.
“I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy,” Obama said after the NSA revelations. Yet his administration has already begun the process of bringing criminal charges against Snowden that could put him behind bars for decades. An earlier leaker, WikiLeaker informant Bradley Manning, faces life in prison.
It is against that chilling backdrop that Harvey Silverglate and I present the 16th Annual Muzzle Awards — a Fourth of July round-up of outrages against free speech and personal liberties in New England during the past year.
Launched in 1998, the Muzzles’ home was the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in March. This year we are pleased to bring the Muzzles to WGBH.org, and to continue publishing them for readers of the Providence Phoenix and the Portland Phoenix.
The Muzzle Awards were inspired by Silverglate, a noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor. They are named after similar awards given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression.
The dishonor roll this year includes some previous winners, such as US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Maine Governor Paul LePage, as well as newcomers ranging from a judge to the owners of a racetrack. The recipients were chosen by tracking freedom-of-speech stories throughout the year and consulting branches of the ACLU in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine.
The envelopes, please.
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz: Prosecuting — and persecuting — a fragile Internet visionary
Last January, Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old computer prodigy and an activist for open information, hanged himself in his New York City apartment. Swartz suffered from depression and was reportedly despondent over a criminal case that Carmen Ortiz had brought against him for downloading millions of academic articles at MIT without authorization.
Swartz, who co-founded Reddit and helped develop the RSS standard, had done nothing with the articles. JSTOR, the company whose servers he had targeted, declined to press charges. But Ortiz pursued him zealously, putting out a public statement threatening him with 35 years in prison. After his death, she let it be known that he faced “only” six months behind bars if he’d pled guilty.
Ortiz may have decided to make an example of Swartz because of his outspokenness about oppressive copyright enforcement and related issues, which his MIT stunt was meant to illustrate. It wouldn’t be the first time she had demonstrated her contempt for free speech. Last year Ortiz received a Muzzle for her successful prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a vile propagandist for Al Qaeda whose activities should nevertheless have been protected by the First Amendment.
Yet even after his death Swartz succeeded in advancing the cause of openness. In May, The New Yorker unveiled Strongbox, software that would allow whistleblowers to deposit leaked documents without being traced. Bradley Manning might never have gotten caught if it had been available to him, nor Edward Snowden if he’d chosen to use it.
The developer was Aaron Swartz.
Governor Paul LePage: Maine’s pro-gun governor tramples on the public’s right to know
Editors at the Bangor Daily News must have known their request for public documents about concealed-gun permits last February would be controversial. After all, The Journal News of White Plains, New York, had already set off a firestorm by publishing an interactive map of gun owners on its website.
But the reaction to the BDN was so intense that it called into question the very nature of “public” records. State legislators, especially Republicans, denounced the newspaper. A “Boycott Bangor Daily News Dont [sic] Tread on Us” page popped up on Facebook.
And our Muzzle winner, Governor Paul LePage , demagogued the issue, posing for a photo in which he’s seen holding up his own concealed-gun permit. He also called on the state legislature to the remove the data from the public realm as quickly as possible. (The legislation was passed and signed in April, according to the New England First Amendment Coalition.)
“If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his,” LePage was quoted as saying. “I have serious concerns that BDN’s request will incite fear among gun owners and nongun owners alike regarding their safety.”
It was all too much for the newspaper, which ended up withdrawing its request — even though, in an “Editor’s Note,” the paper said it “never would have published personally identifying information of any permit holder.”
This is LePage’s third Muzzle, with his previous awards coming in 2011 and 2012. His earlier antics leaned toward the buffoonish. This time, he acted as a thug, leading an unruly mob to trample on the public’s right to know.