A US senator from Massachusetts who wants the federal government to monitor so-called hate speech on television, radio, and the Internet. A local official in Rhode Island who disparages complaints about an unconstitutional law prohibiting anonymous political speech as “absolute nonsense.” A Maine official who pleads with legislators to reinstate a ban on releasing 911 calls, even though such calls are public records in most states.
These are just a few of the cases that comprise the 17th Annual Muzzle Awards — a Fourth of July round-up of outrages against free speech and personal liberties in New England during the past year.
The New England Muzzles, sadly, are a reflection of repression at the national level. Last year at this time, we were learning from Edward Snowden the extent to which the government spies on our email, telephone, and other electronic communications. This year, a New York Times journalist, James Risen, faces jail for refusing to testify in the trial of a former CIA agent charged with leaking classified information to him.
In February, the New England First Amendment Coalition presented Risen with the Stephen Hamblett Award for his staunch defense of the First Amendment. The award is named after the late publisher of The Providence Journal.
“The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail,” Risen said, according to a Boston Globe account. “They’ve backed me into a corner.”
The Muzzle Awards, launched by the Phoenix in 1998, are intended to single out the dramatic and the petty, the epic and the absurd. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Yet as these examples show, the battle to maintain those freedoms must be fought every day.
Before we get to this year’s winners, a blast from Muzzles past: In 1999 we awarded a Muzzle to two Massachusetts legislators, Susan Fargo and Paul Demakis, for pushing a buffer zone to keep protesters at a distance from abortion clinics. Fifteen years later, the US Supreme Court agreed, ruling that such buffer zones are an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment. The Court outlined several less instrusive, constitutionally permissible alternatives to protect women, and we hope the Massachusetts state legislature will act quickly.
The arguments put forth by challengers of the Massachusetts law were similar to those being used by plaintiffs in a Portland case that seeks to throw out the city’s buffer zone; US District Court Judge Nancy Torresen had said she was waiting to see the outcome of the Massachusetts case before ruling. Last week, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England released this statement: “We believe the buffer zone ordinance in Portland fairly balances the First Amendment rights of individuals with the rights of our patients to access health care free of harassment and intimidation. We still experience regular protesters at our health center and they are still able to get their message out. What is different since the buffer zone has been enacted is that we no longer see the sort of harassment and intimidation we saw previously. We are taking a close look at today’s ruling and examining how it impacts Portland’s buffer zone.”
The envelopes, please.