Wednesday, March 24, 2010
By Jack Sullivan
It’s not always the titans of media that carry the fight for the First Amendment. Often, some of the most principled defenders of free speech are those whose names we may never hear or remember.
For every Judith Miller there is a Susan Fitzgerald, whose David vs. Goliath battle with the Southborough Board of Selectmen we highlight on our CommonWealth magazine site.
No need to rehash the story here but it is unsettling to see selectmen, who have been angered by anonymous posts on Fitzgerald’s blog, use taxpayers monies to try to squelch public discourse that question official actions. Salvatore Giorlandino, the chairmen of the board of selectmen, told me the law was on their side but the case he cited, Town of Brookline v Goldstein, clearly says no such thing regarding speech. It is about the unreasonable actions of an individual in harassing elected officials at their homes and offices.
Giorlandino and Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano claim allegations by the commenter who goes by the name “Marty” could be actionable in court. You can see the correspondence between Cipriano and Fitzgerald here. Marty claimed a volunteer search committee for a new police chief violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when they went into executive session to discuss candidates.
Yet, how is that allegation different from the scores of times I or any of my colleagues have challenged public boards for going into executive session? It is belief based on the interpretation of the law, not a slanderous utterance.
The second letter Cipriano sent to Fitzgerald demanding the identity of the offending commenter is chilling in its breadth and shows a possible intent by the town officials to go after all opposing opinion.
“(T)his correspondence to you is a notice to preserve all internet addresses, IP addresses and electronic communication of every form as to the comments received relative to the Police Chief Search Committee, including but not limited to those received as to Marty and that no deletions or erasures be made relative to any such data,” Cipriano wrote.
In the 21st century, one of the most vexing problems for anyone with an Internet presence is where to draw the line of allowing anonymous comments on their sites. Some sites require full name and registration while others, including CommonWealth, allow people to use pseudonyms. Which is better for traffic and which is more responsible is a debate worth having but not one that can or should be determined by a government entity bringing its hammer down on dissenters.
While it’s hard not to empathize with people of good conscience sacrificing their time and energies to serve their communities only to have their actions be met with hostile anonymous comments, that is what the First Amendment is about. Fitzgerald sees that and that is why she should get plenty of support from those in the media business as well as her fellow townsfolk.
Jack Sullivan is the senior investigative reporter at CommonWealth magazine