It was a quiet day yesterday. I received several notices from the Connecticut Department of transportation about various motor vehicle accidents around the state, including an accident in Stratford. The Attorney General’s office sent me an email about Attorney General Blumenthal submitting to the court a proposed settlement providing around $1 million in restitution to F&S Oil Company customers. I received a press release from the Connecticut Office of State Ethics concerning court reporters “allegedly using their state positions to obtain financial gain”, including a court reporter from Orange and the City of New Haven sent a press release informing interested parties that “the Chapel Street bridge in the City's Fair Haven neighborhood has been closed temporarily for mechanical reasons. “ It is expected to reopen today. In addition, ConnCan sent out to mailings about their latest report card on Connecticut Schools.
On the national level, I received a press release from Sen. Dodd’s office concerning his letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him “to halt procurement of any further Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters until an analysis of options-including an American-made alternative helicopter-has been completed”. Around the same time, I received an email from the communications director of the Connecticut Democratic Party concerning the latest polls in the U.S. Senate Race.
The U.S. Census Bureau sent a note to correspondents concerning the release of 2009 State Population Estimates. The release had been scheduled for Tuesday, but has been postponed because of the inclement weather which closed the federal government on Monday. It should come out today at noon. I also received various notices from the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice and a fascinating news release from the National Building Museum and National Capital Planning Commission about twenty-four middle school students views on the best way to design a new White House Visitor Center.
In many cases, a volunteer citizen journalist can relatively easily get information from various agencies. Unfortunately, Woodbridge is different. Last Friday, a neighbor forwarded a copy of a press release concerning two recent burglaries in town. I sent a request to be added to the distribution list for the emails of the Woodbridge Police Department Press Releases.
Yesterday, I was disappointed to receive the following reply:
We received your request, however, the Press Releases are e-mailed to our Police Commission members as a courtesy. The Press Releases appear in the New Haven Register. At this time, we will not be e-mailing Press Releases to any other outside agencies.
This raises concerns on many levels. The most immediate is public safety. If the Woodbridge Police Department is truly concerned with public safety, they should be making every effort to distribute public information to any journalist or citizen in the town, and not simply to the police commissioners and the police department’s preferred news organizations.
Likewise, there is the message of courtesy. The police department shows courtesy to commissioners but not to journalists that reside in the town. That is not a message that is good for the Police Department’s image. On a mailing list of media reformers, one person wrote that this was the dumbest thing they had ever heard and hoped that the Woodbridge Police Department was better at fighting crime that it is at handling information.
A Woodbridge resident noted that the Woodbridge Police Department does not seem to understand public relations and noted that the point of issuing press releases is to publicize activities in a consistent and efficient manner.
Then, there are questions of fact. Do the press releases appear in the New Haven Register? Most news organizations do not publish press releases directly. Instead, they are used as material for their reporters to write news stories. I’ve contacted several reporters at the New Haven Register to ask for details about how press releases from the Woodbridge Police Department are handled and am awaiting replies. A quick search online for the press release that started this discussion did not show anything at the New Haven Register. However, it did find an article in the Amity Observer, a local weekly paper. That article does not identify itself as being a press release thought it appeared to be a nearly verbatim copy of the press release.
Even if the press releases do show up in the New Haven Register, or the Amity Observer, there can be an additional lag before this information gets distributed, returning back to the public safety issue.
There is also the issue of unfair preference to some news organizations over others. This can be a subtle attempt at censorship, by not sharing information with news organizations that write critical stories of the Police Department. I believe it was protection from this sort of concern that led our forefathers to including protection of the press in the Bill of Rights.
Beyond the issues of how this action relates to freedom of the press, there are important freedom of information issues. One lawyer observed that a basic rule of government speech is that while they may not be compelled to speak, once they do they should do so in a nondiscriminatory manner. Several people encouraged me to contact the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission which I will probably do after the holidays.
Yet it is not fair to single out the Woodbridge, CT police department. I found similar stories of people dealing with local police departments in upstate New York, Virginia, and other states. Others have reported police departments that have been particular helpful in disseminating public information, including police departments in Washington State and California.
It isn’t just police departments that make efforts to restrict public information. According to Huffington Post, radio talk show host Bill Press took a job as an intern in Sen. Bernie Sanders office to better cover what is going on in the Senate after being denied he “was denied a request for media credentials from the Congressional Radio-Television Galleries”.
Numerous people noted that this is a problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially as more and more downsized traditional journalists set up their own online news sites and attempt to get access. The media advocacy group Free Press is looking at this on the national level and the Citizen Media Law Project has launched the Online Media Legal Network, a project hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. They are prepared to offer legal aid to online journalists in these battles.
On the one hand, I am hoping that this is just a small misunderstanding on the part of the Woodbridge Police Department and I will not have to pursue legal actions with the help of the various organizations listed above. On the other hand, if I do have to pursue this through various legal fronts, I hope that this will prove beneficial to citizen journalists around the country fighting for more open access to public information in their communities.
Have you tried gaining access to important public information? What have been your successes? What have been your challenges? How have you worked around them? Let’s get a good dialog going to discuss how we can all work together to improve government services in all our communities.
As part of renewing my membership with the Media bloggers Association (MBA) I needed to take a fascinating News University course, Online Media Law: The Basics for Bloggers and Other Online Publishers. I’ve paid a lot of attention to online media law over the last year or two, and friends said I should be able to zip right through the course. I probably could have, but I decided to take my time and pay extra close attention.
The course was developed as a joint project by the Media Bloggers Association, the Citizen Media Law Project, the Center for Citizen Media, City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, Baruch College, and Media/Professional Insurance. It focuses on three key areas that anyone posting material online should be aware of, defamation, privacy and copyright.
Not only is the course useful in helping people who post material online determine what they should and shouldn’t post, it is also helpful in understanding what other publishers, whether they be major blogs, newspapers, or whatever should be thinking about. It would be great to have a nice summary of the key points of the class. Such a summary would fit very nicely along side the Society of Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics. If everyone publishing online kept the online media law course notes and the code of ethics in mind, we would see a vast improvement in what is written online.
The course started off talking about defamation; libel and slander. It talked about the differences between public figures and officials, people who are public figures in a limited capacity, such as being an expert in a specific field, and private individuals. It talked about what is required to prove defamation, including when ‘actual malice’ needs to be shown, and the fact that corporations as well as individuals can be defamed and claim damages.
It went on to talk about privacy issues and what sort of material may raise issues, and ended off with a good discussion of copyright, as well as fair use issues. All in all, I probably spent two hours going through the course, and I’m likely to go through it often just to review and brush up on the issues.
There were exercises, including the opportunity to look at actual cases and make your own determination as to whether you thought defamation, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement was taking place. This gets to one of my gripes about the course. If your opinion on the merits of a particular case different from the opinion rendered by a judge hearing that case, they would say that you are incorrect. In some examples, this was even the situation with cases that had been ruled one way but were currently under appeal. The problem is that laws are not black and white and one judge’s opinion is not necessarily the ‘correct’ opinion. Instead of saying correct or incorrect, it would be better to note that you agreed with or disagreed with the judge on the case. What I would love to see is a place where people could discuss the merits of different cases and learn from one another.
With all of this in mind, I received an email from an organization I’ve been following. With permission of the person sending the email, I’m printing excerpts from a public statement. An article, critical of the organization had recently been published. The organization claimed the article was “inaccurate and misleading in the extreme.”
The organization had retained outside counsel to “to conduct a full review of governance, [and] corporate structure” of the organization. A newspaper obtained a copy of that review and presented it in a very different manner.
The counsel for the organization wrote that the article
misrepresents the purpose and context of my June memo as well as my conclusions and recommendations. I was providing confidential advice to a group of organizations that I knew would come under just the sort of politically motivated attacks we have seen this fall. My advice was offered for the organizations to be prepared to defend themselves against any imaginable allegation that might be brought. Accordingly, I flagged areas where I had concerns about their ability to affirmatively and formally prove the absence of legal violations. This is a far cry from stating that any actual violation had occurred or even that it may have.
As I read this, my mind went over aspects of the Online Media Law class. Was there actual malice by the reporter? I hesitate to claim actual malice in most cases, and I’m not sure if there was actual malice in this case. I just don’t have enough information. Was there publication of private facts? Clearly, the legal advice provided by counsel was intended to be confidential. Yet for a case about publication of private facts to be actionable, according to the class, it must be highly offensive to a reasonable person and not of legitimate concern to the public. In this case, I’m not sure either of those criteria were met. It seems as if ‘False Light’ fits even more closely, because it sure sounds like the article placed the organization and perhaps the lawyer in a false light. Is any of this actionable? I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not representing the organization in question or the newspaper, so I’ll reserve judgment.
A little later, I stumbled across Howie Klein’s blog post Gee, I Hope John Shadegg Isn't Planning On Suing Me After He Loses His Congressional Seat In 2 Weeks!. Klein talks about a blog post he had up referring to a book which alleged sexual misconduct by a member of Congress. Like with the example above, people could argue all kinds of different aspects of the case and it would be fascinating to watch an informed discussion of the issues. As I thought about it, many different considerations from the class came to mind.
Anyway you cut it, there is a lot to Online Media Law and I strongly encourage people to take the course. If you’re publishing material online, it is very important. If you’re simply trying to make more sense of what goes on in the media, it is a fascinating and enjoyable course.
11:15 - Verdict reached.
Unfortunately, I'm not at the courtroom, so I've been flipping channels, watching everyone try to fill time as they wait for the verdict to come out.
12:04 - Jury is coming in....
Just in: Verdict has been reached and will be announced at noon.
When I came back from live blogging the Libby trial deliberations in Washington DC, I thought perhaps I would be done with blogging about the judiciary for a little while. I did not expect to find myself reading what I have been reading about the Connecticut Judiciary.