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Maine Department of Transportation: Keeping records about a controversial highway from the public view

A private developer has proposed a $2 billion, 220-mile highway connecting Calais to the east and Coburn Gore to the west — and all documents pertaining to the project are under seal. That’s because of a 2010 exemption to Maine’s right-to-know law that, as the Portland Press Herald editorialized, “you could drive a truck through.”

Under the exemption, records about the proposed “east-west highway” will remain secret until the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) decides whether to move ahead. This lack of accountability is an outrageous breach of the public trust. By rights, the officials responsible for writing and passing the 2010 exemption deserve the Muzzle. We’ll award it to the DOT as their proxy.

Fortunately, advocates of open government are succeeding in undoing the worst of the 2010 exemption. One June 5, Governor Paul LePage signed legislation that  maintains the legitimate need to protect confidential business information and trade secrets while subjecting most aspects of such partnerships to public scrutiny.

“Decisions about whom the government enters into partnership with and how officials spend our taxpayer money are certainly matters of public importance,” wrote Rachel Healy, communications director for the ACLU of Maine, in a commentary for the New England First Amendment Center.

Passage of the bill was urgently needed. The east-west highway is a controversial idea. According to the Associated Press, business owners this spring told the legislature’s transportation committee that the highway would cause them significant harm. They — and everyone in Maine — deserve to be treated with respect. A transparent process would provide that.

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Rhode Island prison chief A.T. Wall: Prisoners have free-speech rights, too

Does a prison inmate forfeit his First Amendment rights? Yes, to an extent. But as US Magistrate Lincoln Almond patiently explained last September, an inmate who criticizes a prison policy that is applicable to other inmates and who provides them with relevant information — unlike a “personal matter of purely individual interest” — may indeed be engaging in protected speech.

Almond was aiming his words at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC), whose director, Ashbel T. “A.T.” Wall II , was fighting a lawsuit brought by Jason Cook, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston. Cook claimed that after he complained to The Providence Journal in 2007 about a new policy that restricted reading materials an inmate could receive (which itself raised First Amendment issues and was later rescinded), prison authorities retaliated by taking away his kitchen job, trashing his cell, holding him in segregation, and subjecting him to strip-searches. The resolution of Cook’s lawsuit is still pending.

In defending itself against Cook’s lawsuit, the DOC argued, among other things, that Cook had no First Amendment right to speak to the Journal, thus prompting Almond’s finding. The DOC appealed. In February, US District Judge William Smith upheld most of Almond’s recommendations, including his finding that Cook did indeed enjoy some First Amendment protections.

“The DOC’s position that inmates could be disciplined simply for bringing prison conditions and policies to the public’s attention was extremely troubling,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

Convicted criminals, understandably, give up many of their rights when they are sentenced to prison. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t put them beyond the protection of the Constitution. A.T. Wall may not like it — but at least now he presumably understands it.

 

Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat: Twitter emerges as a vital news tool — but not in this courtroom

The courts remain our least open institution. Twitter has helped change that, as reporters are able to send updates throughout the day from inside the courtroom. For instance, a phalanx of media is now live-tweeting every moment of the Whitey Bulger trial.

Then there is Judge Peter Lauriat , who last winter presided over the case of Nathaniel Fujita, convicted in March of murdering his girlfriend. Lauriat had no problem with television cameras or even live-blogging — but he drew the line at Twitter.

According to Robert Ambrogi, a lawyer who is also executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Lauriat initially banned Twitter from anywhere inside the Middlesex Superior Courthouse in Woburn. He later backed off and allowed tweeting from a separate media room, but not from the courtroom itself.

“The ban on tweeting drew the unavoidable question: What’s the difference?” asked Ambrogi. The answer is unclear.

David Riley wrote at the Wicked Local Blog that Lauriat was concerned that jurors were more likely to run across a tweet by accident than another form of media.

Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project, reported that Lauriat expressed doubts about the quality of journalism when reduced to 140-character updates, and about his inability to prevent attendees who had not registered as journalists from firing up Tweetbot on their smartphones.

None of these were good enough reasons to ban what has become a vital news medium. Lauriat acted as he did because he could. He shouldn’t have had that option.

 

Plainridge Racecourse: A citizen journalist finds himself in the crosshairs of a bogus lawsuit

Last September the owners of the Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, Massachusetts, SLAPP’d Thomas “T.J.” Keen hard. In the end, he slapped them back harder.

Keen, a Plainville resident and gambling opponent, set up a website called No Plainville Racino to fight a proposed slots license at the track. As Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham described it, Keen’s troubles began after someone broke into his home and he gave a webcam image to the Plainville Police. The picture made its way onto a related Facebook page that another gambling opponent had started. An anonymous commenter wrote, “I wonder if they checked over at the racetrack, lol.”

Ourway Realty, which owns the track, sued Keen for defamation on the basis of that anonymous comment. Keen countersued, arguing that Ourway’s legal action had been filed for the sole purpose of stifling public debate and thus violated the state’s anti-SLAPP law. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”)

In the end, Keen — and the right of citizens to speak out — prevailed. Judge Patrick Brady of Norfolk Superior Court tossed aside the suit and awarded Keen nearly $25,000 to cover his legal costs, accordingto TheSun Chronicle of Attleboro.

“I’m happy that the court has affirmed affected citizens’ right to petition and make their voice heard in these community-changing debates,” Keen said in a statement released by the ACLU of Massachusetts, which helped represent him. “Residents should not be intimidated or bullied by deep-pocketed firms looking to quash their dissenting voice.”

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on WGBH-TV’s ' Beat the Press .' He has been compiling the Muzzle Awards since their debut in 1998. He can be reached at dkennedy56@gmail.com .

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