The 2015 Muzzle Awards
Spotlighting 10 Who Diminish Free Speech
Plus: Campus Outrages
The New England Muzzle Awards call attention to outrages against free speech. The annual Fourth of July round-up — now in its 18th year — ranges from the serious to the ridiculous and all points in between. And we’ll get to that.
First, though, a digression. The 2015 awards come amid what can only be described as a crisis in transparency on Beacon Hill and throughout Massachusetts. The state’s public-records law has long been recognized as among the weakest in the country. Several years ago the State Integrity Project gave Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of providing access to public information. During the past year, the abuses enabled by the state’s lack of transparency burst into the public consciousness.
Take, for instance, a Boston Globe report from this past March in which we learned that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office had exempted some police records from the law — including the names of officers charged with drunken driving and other serious crimes.
Or take the testimony of Tom Duggan, publisher of the Valley Patriot in North Andover, who told a legislative committee looking into possible reforms that the city of Lawrence refused to release records even after officials had admitted they were public and Duggan had paid a $61.81 fee.
“We were told by the former mayor of Lawrence, Willie Lantigua, that he wasn’t even going to make the effort to look for public records because there was no penalty for refusing,” Duggan said, according to an account in his newspaper. The records were finally turned over when a new mayor, Dan Rivera, took office.
The ACLU of Massachusetts recently compiled a list of incidents implicating the weak public-records law. Here are just a few examples:
- Outrageous costs. Fox 25 investigative reporter Mike Beaudet (disclosure: Beaudet is a colleague of mine at Northeastern University) was told he would have to fork over $70,000 for records to determine the extent of nepotism in the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
- Bizarre arguments for secrecy. The Washington Post reported that the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which comprises 58 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex Counties, refused an ACLU request for records by claiming that it was a private nonprofit organization not covered by the law. (The dispute was recently settled on terms favorable to the ACLU.)
- Fees to determine fees. You can look this one up under the definition of “chutzpah.” When the Bay State Examiner asked for copies of files to determine how the State Police investigate claims of misconduct by troopers, the newspaper was charged $710 — not for the records, but for the privilege of determining how much the paper should be charged for the records. Call it “pay to pay.”
There is some good news. Secretary Galvin, whose public image on transparency has veered between villain and hero, recently struck a deal with Attorney General Maura Healey to resume enforcing the public-records law. Galvin reportedly had stopped cooperating with Healey’s predecessor, Martha Coakley, over differences in how the law should be interpreted.
But though that’s a good step, it’s not enough. Along with the ACLU, a number of groups are fighting for reform, including the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Common Cause of Massachusetts, and several news organizations, including the Globe, the Boston Herald, and GateHouse Media New England, which publishes more than 100 community newspapers in Massachusetts.
The fate of legislation aimed at strengthening the law by reducing fees, putting many records online, and establishing penalties for noncompliance (including the imposition of attorney’s fees) was undetermined as this year’s Muzzles were being wrapped up. Clearly, though, significant changes are needed.
And with that, it’s time to get to this year’s Muzzle Award winners. Launched in 1998, the Muzzles’ home was the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the third year they have been hosted by WGBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
The envelopes, please:
The 2015 Campus Muzzle Awards