Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gov-elect Patrick supports shield bill

Massachusetts Gov.-elect Deval Patrick, speaking today at the annual luncheon of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, expressed support for a law to protect reporters from disclosing their sources. But he said such a law would impose a concomitant responsibility on news organizations not to abuse the privilege. A bill to create a Massachusetts shield law is pending in the state legislature, but is unlikely to see action before the current session ends this month.

Patrick also expressed support for openness in government, while emphasizing his belief that some government business needs to take place behind closed doors.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Calif. Court Issues Broad Libel Protection

The California Supreme Court today issue a decision affirming sweeping protection against online defamation under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In today's decision, Barrett v. Rosenthal, the court said that the common law distinction between "publishers" and "distributors" makes no difference under the CDA -- both have broad immunity against liability for defamatory materials published online. The court further held that the CDA protects providers and users of online computer services equally, without regard to whether the user is "active" or "passive."
"We acknowledge that recognizing broad immunity for defamatory republications on the Internet has some troubling consequences. Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area, however, plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement."
The ruling overturns a decision of the California Court of Appeal, which held that the CDA did not protect a "distributor" who republished an allegedly defamatory statement with notice of its defamatory character.

The case pitted the operator of a Web site devoted to exposing health frauds, Dr. Stephen J. Barrett, against the operator of an Internet discussion group, Ilena Rosenthal. Rosenthal received a copy of an article that made various allegations concerning Barrett's character and competence. When she posted the article to two news groups, Barrett sued. The trial court ruled that her republication of the article was protected under the CDA, but the Court of Appeal reversed -- a move the Supreme Court characterized as "swimming against the jurisprudential tide."

The case had drawn friend-of-the-court briefs from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and a who's who of technology and media companies.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

1st Amendment protects boxing, but not smoking

Could the protection lines of the First Amendment be any blurrier? Consider these two examples:
  • In Albuquerque, N.M., a federal judge has ruled that five police officers and one firefighter have a First Amendment right to fight in a charity boxing tournament that will include excessive drinking and "scantily clad ring girls," Associated Press reports via the First Amendment Center. Although the fight may offend some city officials, the judge said, "the fundamental right of all citizens to form their own sensibilities is really the essence of the First Amendment."
  • In Denver, Colo., a judge held that actors have no First Amendment right to smoke on stage despite a statewide smoking ban, the Daily Camera reports. "[P]laintiffs have failed to demonstrate that smoking in the theater constitutes expressive conduct," the judge said. The theater's artistic director maintained that smoking was "fundamental to the audience's understanding."
Clear now? You have a constitutional right to box and cavort on stage, just don't light up afterwards.

Judge orders town to open lawyer search

Finding that the town of Westborough, Mass., violated the open meeting law when it brought forth only one candidate from a field of 24 to be the new town attorney, a judge ordered the town to consider three finalists in an open meeting.

Reporter Sarah Menesale writes in the MetroWest Daily News that Worcester Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Locke ruled that selectman must consider the three finalist candidates in an open meeting and make public the minutes of a Sept. 7 meeting at which the candidates were discussed.

The open meeting law exempts meetings for preliminary screening of job applicants. In winnowing the pool from 24 candidates to one finalist, Judge Locke found, the town went to far. "Preliminary implies there will be a final selection process among those who have survived the earlier review," he concluded, according to Menesale's report.

Worcester District Attorney John Conte filed the lawsuit Sept. 29 after receiving a complaint filed by MetroWest Daily News Editor Richard Lodge.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Web site, blog, cover legal-affairs reporting

A program designed to prepare future journalists to cover legal affairs has launched a Web site and companion blog. The Carnegie Legal Reporting Program @ Newhouse is a program launched this year with a grant from the Carnegie Journalism Initiative. The program is based at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Companion to the new Web site is a blog, LawBeat, written by Mark Obbie, director of the program and former executive editor of The American Lawyer. The blog, Obbie says, "watches the journalists who watch the law. It is meant to start a conversation — here and in the classroom — about the quality of journalism focusing on the justice system, lawyers and the law."