[Correction, July 3 2008: Due to a reporting error, in a previous version of this story, Maine attorney general Steven Rowe's role was overstated in a case involving Maine's Freedom of Access Act. Rowe was not a party to a lawsuit aimed at forcing an independent commission Rowe had appointed to release documents it had compiled in the course of reviewing the conviction of Dennis Dechaine in the notorious Sarah Cherry murder trial. However, we continue to believe that Rowe should have ordered that the records be released, as we first argued last fall ("Freedom Watch," Portland Phoenix, October 10, 2007).]Freedom of expression may be guaranteed by the Constitution. But it’s an idea we have to fight for every day.
That has never been more true than in the post–9/11 era. Just ask Adam Habib, a South African academic of Muslim heritage and critic of the war in Iraq, who’s been banned from speaking in Boston this summer because of secret — and, he insists, nonexistent — evidence that he has ties to terrorism.
The great civil libertarian Nat Hentoff once said that our sex drive pales in comparison with our urge to censor. It’s an urge that is played out in places high and low, encompassing both the serious and the absurd. Military veterans protesting the war are arrested in Boston and charged with disturbing the peace. An anti-abortion-rights activist in Maine borrows sex-education books from public libraries and refuses to return them. A legislative leader in Rhode Island — the head of John McCain’s presidential campaign in that state — compares anonymous critics to “terrorists,” and helps kill a proposal aimed at guaranteeing their First Amendment rights.
These are just a few of the cases highlighted in our Muzzle Awards, an annual Fourth of July roundup now in its 11th year. Since 1998, the Phoenix has been honoring those who’ve brought dishonor to themselves by trampling on the rights of free speech and personal liberties in New England.
The Muzzle Awards were inspired by noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate, and are named after similar awards given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression.
This year’s edition was compiled by tracking freedom-of-expression stories in New England since July 4, 2007, and are based on reporting by the Phoenix newspapers in Boston, Providence, and Portland, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and various news organizations and Web sites — including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Providence Journal, the Portland Press Herald, the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, the Enterprise of Brockton, the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine, the Associated Press, and universalhub.com.
And now, the envelopes, please.
The media giant fired veteran cable-TV host Barry Nolan for criticizing Bill O’Reilly
If there’s a symbol of everything that’s wrong with what passes for the news media today, it is surely the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.
Preening and arrogant, the puffy-faced populist loves nothing more than to tell his guests to “shut up.” He has compared the liberal doyenne Arianna Huffington to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis. The Secret Service nearly arrested him this past January for his out-of-control attempt to gain access to Barack Obama. And, of course, he was the subject of a memorable sexual-harassment suit in 2004, a case that introduced the word “loofah” into the popular lexicon. The suit, brought by a former O’Reilly employee, was settled on confidential terms, reportedly in the range of several million dollars.
So when the New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced it would present O’Reilly with a coveted Governors Award at this spring’s Emmy Award dinner, long-time Boston television personality Barry Nolan went nuts. Nolan, the host — make that the former host — of Backstage, on Comcast’s CN8 channel, publicly denounced O’Reilly as “a mental case.” He joked that, since his wife would be out of town, he would bring O’Reilly tormenter Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, as his date. And he distributed some of O’Reilly’s greatest hits, along with excerpts from the sexual-harassment suit, at the awards dinner.
Nolan’s reward: Comcast Corporation fired him, an action that has earned the Philadelphia-based media conglomerate a Muzzle Award. According to Nolan, his termination was a direct consequence of his anti-O’Reilly campaign.
No, Nolan was not censored by an oppressive government. But Nolan was terminated for speaking out by an employer whose core values include — or should include — a commitment to the free and open discussion of ideas.
There is something unseemly about a small player like Nolan being forced out by a monopolistic cable giant because he dared criticize someone who works for Rupert Murdoch’s even more gigantic media company. Just for appearance’s sake, you’d think Nolan would have been allowed to have his say and be done with it. Apparently not.