TO UPDATE THAT bogus old Ronald Reagan commercial, it’s mourning in America. We are at war, and in times of national crisis, too many of us find it too easy to dismiss freedom of speech as a superfluous luxury. Thus the fifth annual Muzzle Awards, which single out 10 enemies of free speech and personal liberties in New England, come at a troubled moment.
On June 16, the Washington Post published an astounding commentary by Dennis Pluchinsky, a counterterrorism expert for the State Department. It began, "I accuse the media in the United States of treason." Why? Because the media have been doing what they’re supposed to do: aggressively reporting on security risks in the aftermath of September 11.
"In a war situation, it is not business as usual," Pluchinsky wrote. "Use some common sense. Certainly, if a reporter or academician believes that he or she has discovered a vulnerability or flaw in one of our sectors or systems, it is important to let others know. It seems reasonable to me that a process should be established where such articles are filtered through a government agency such as the proposed Department of Homeland Security. A skeptic would call this censorship; a patriot would call it cooperation."
As Samuel Johnson observed, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Our society thrives on the free and open exchange of ideas. Filter investigative reporting through some Ministry of Information, and it’s no more likely to be taken seriously than any of the numerous warnings that the CIA and the FBI ignored before last September 11.
Fortunately, to date there have been more portents of oppression than actual oppression. The USA Patriot Act, a cornucopia of Johnsonian ironies, threatens to encroach on free speech and personal liberties. But according to a June 23 report in the Boston Globe, it has been used sparingly so far. The most notorious application of the Patriot Act has been in the case of Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty-bomb suspect, who has been jailed without being charged — an action of dubious constitutionality.
Two of this year’s Muzzle Award winners have a September 11 tie-in. And, in a reflection of what is occurring nationally, the relevant incidents don't signal the arrival of out-and-out authoritarianism so much as they engender a sense of foreboding.
One involved a young, turban-wearing Sikh engineer who was arrested on a train in Providence on September 12 and charged with illegally carrying a knife. It turned out to be a small, ceremonial religious dagger, yet Providence police dawdled more than a month before dropping charges.
The other was Maine governor Angus King’s decision to invite just a handful of reporters, and no members of the public, to a homeland-security conference. King eventually relented and opened it to the media, but the public — in whose name the conference was being held — was kept at bay.
This year’s Fourth of July round-up was compiled by consulting noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate and the ACLU offices in Boston, Providence, and Portland, and by closely tracking freedom-of-expression stories in New England since last July Fourth. It is based mainly on stories reported by various New England news outlets, including the Phoenix.
Finally, a bow to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which has been dishonoring national enemies of the First Amendment with its "Jefferson Muzzle" awards for the past 11 years. The center can be found on the Web at www.tjcenter.org.
Massachusetts Department of CorrectionSilencing inmates by keeping the media out
Few of us waste much time thinking about the plight of those who have been sent to prison. Most inmates, after all, are behind bars because they committed serious crimes. It’s easy to tell yourself that once they’ve been locked up, they have no right to be heard from until after they’ve done their time.
Easy, but wrong.
Depriving people of their freedom is the most awesome power exercised under state law, at least in this part of the country. (In New England, only New Hampshire and Connecticut have the death penalty. The last New England execution took place in 1960, in Connecticut.) With power must come accountability. And accountability is impossible without tough, independent scrutiny.
Apparently that’s the last thing the Massachusetts Department of Correction wants. This spring, the DOC unveiled proposed new rules that would drastically restrict journalists’ access to prison inmates. (See "Locking Up the Big House," News and Features, June 28.)
The rules appear to violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, since they would deny reporters rights granted to ordinary citizens. For instance, friends and relatives may visit a prisoner who is in a segregation unit; if the DOC gets its way, however, a reporter could not. Prison officials also do not listen in on conversations between an inmate and an ordinary visitor, but media interviews would be monitored. Tape recorders and cameras would be banned, and so, reportedly, would telephone interviews.
The rules appear to be designed solely to protect prison officials from public scrutiny. Prisons, after all, are violent, brutal places, and the jail keepers don’t necessarily want us to know what we’re getting for the more than $400 million in tax money we give to them each year.
In a June 12 piece on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), documentary filmmaker Ofra Bikel — whose work for programs such as PBS’s Frontline has resulted in freedom for 11 wrongly convicted ex-prisoners — told reporter Jason Beaubien that she never could have uncovered such injustices if she’d been subject to the proposed DOC guidelines. An ACLU official told Beaubien that, in Wisconsin, a newspaper was able to photograph and interview a mentally ill juvenile who was being held in a hellish segregation unit — a story that persuaded a judge to order reforms. If Massachusetts prison officials get their way, such enterprising journalism will not take place here. In a recent interview with the Phoenix, Beaubien said, "Officials make it incredibly difficult to cover prisons. The Boston media has been beaten down by the lack of access and the process."
The proposed rules are just the latest attempt by the Department of Correction to dehumanize its prisoners and cut them off from the outside world. In May, for instance, the Boston Globe reported that inmates at Norfolk state prison have been banned from posting newspaper and magazine clippings on their cell walls — even New Yorker cartoons — thus prompting a First Amendment lawsuit. Such petty sadism is wrongheaded. Nearly all inmates will eventually return to society. Prison officials should be preparing them for the outside world — not engaging in gratuitous psychological abuse, and then preventing them from getting word out through the media.
A recent statement by Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which represents prisoners, warned of the dangers of an unaccountable prison system: "If there is any one civics lesson to be gleaned from the last 40 years of American life, it is that when government agencies shut out public scrutiny of their activities, bad news about those activities inevitably follows."
The statement also voiced some well-deserved criticism of the media for their lack of interest in prison stories. That complacency will only become more pronounced if editors and news directors find that it’s just too hard to get their reporters inside prison walls.