Friday, September 11, 2009

Mass. Judge Slams Blogger's Special Treatment

A federal prosecutor's decision to let prominent political blogger Andrew Sullivan off the hook for a marijuana bust was condemned yesterday by a federal magistrate judge in Boston as unjustified favoritism. But finding that he was without power to override the prosecutor's decision, the magistrate judge dismissed the charges nonetheless. I have details in a post today at Legal Blog Watch.

Fellowships for Freelance Legal Journalists

Passing on the following announcement:
Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications will award four Carnegie/Newhouse School Legal Reporting Fellowships to support freelance journalists reporting on legal issues.
The $3,000 awards include paid student research assistants for each reporting fellow, which will give Newhouse students practical experience covering law and the courts. The fellowships are open to freelance journalists working in any medium with the intent of helping them pay out-of-pocket expenses.

"These days, freelancers covering legal issues need as much support as they can get," said Roy Gutterman, director of the Newhouse School’s Carnegie Legal Reporting Program, and an assistant professor of communications law and journalism. "Offering the public thorough, comprehensive coverage of legal issues is an important function of the press and we want to help those efforts."

Fellowship applications are available online at Application deadline is October 5. A panel of faculty members from the Newhouse School will choose the winners. Fellowship money and student research assistants will be available for the 2009-10 academic year.

Newhouse students will be invited to compete for the four research assistant positions, which carry a stipend. "Our students are the lifeblood of our university," Gutterman said. "Marrying up our students with members of the legal reporting press, provides a valuable outside-the-classroom experience."

The Carnegie/Newhouse School Legal Reporting Fellowships are part of the Newhouse School’s Carnegie Legal Reporting Program. Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and its Carnegie Journalism Initiative, the program provides a number of services designed to teach students about the workings of the American legal system and the role of the news media in covering the law. Additional funding for this year’s fellowships is provided by IJPM.

For more information, contact Gutterman, (315) 443-3523 or, or visit

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

SJC Hears Fair Report Case

The Supreme Judicial Court today heard oral arguments in Howell v. The Enterprise Publishing Co., a defamation case arising out of a series of newspaper articles regarding a town's termination of an employee. The case is particularly important because it could define the scope of the fair report privilege in Massachusetts. You can view a webcast of today's oral arguments at this page. That page also has links to the parties' briefs.

The SJC heard the case on further appellate review from a decision of the Appeals Court. The case involves allegations of defamation against a newspaper that accurately reported on findings made by officials in the town of Abington after conducting two investigatory hearings. The officials twice concluded that plaintiff Howell had used town computers to access images of a "pornographic nature." Even though the newspaper reported these findings accurately, the Appeals Court held that if a jury disagrees that the images were pornographic, the newspaper could be liable for defamation. This is a misapplication of the fair report privilege, which protects news outlets against claims for libel when they report information provided in official government documents or statements. 

Thursday, September 03, 2009

One Town's 'Secret Government'

In all my years of tracking open meeting cases in Massachusetts, this one is clearly in the running for the prize for most outrageous. Reporting in The Salem News, writer Steve Landwehr describes the selectmen in the town of Hamilton as operating "a near 'secret government,' with selectmen privately discussing a wide range of personnel and policy issues that are not exempt from the requirements of the Open Meeting Law."

Exhibit No. 1: A series of secret meetings stretching over three months to discuss what the public should be told about two flat-screen TVs in the town's new public safety building. A rumor wase flying around town that the TVs were evidence seized by police in a criminal investigation. Even though the rumor was true, and even though the selectmen were warned that they should not discuss the issue in private, they continued to do so. It would be 18 months before the public would learn the truth -- and only then from an independent investigator.

In another example, selectmen repeatedly met privately to discuss various allegations of misconduct involving a police officer, without ever informing the officer. The open meeting law explicitly requires that discussions of an employee's "professional competence" be conducted in an open meeting. An employee's "reputation" and "character" may be discussed in a closed session, but only after notifying the employee and allowing the employee to attend the executive session and be represented by counsel.

The Salem News report describes other secret meetings in Hamilton. All tolled, it shows what appears to have been a flagrant disregard of the law.