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Watson + Wall win Muzzle Awards

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In time for the Fourth of July, the Phoenix this week offers the 11th annual Muzzle Awards, which recognize efforts to squelch free speech and step on the first Amendment. The excellent Dan Kennedy, as usual, helms Muzzle Central, and he has two winners in Rhode Island.

ROBERT WATSON
He led the fight to make anonymous political speech illegal in Rhode Island

The First Amendment not only protects the right to express oneself freely; it protects the right to do so anonymously, as well.

“Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse,” the US Supreme Court ruled in 1995. “Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views,” and “protect[s] individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society. 

Sadly, the trend in recent years has been to regulate political speech. One such measure is a Rhode Island law requiring that political pamphlets and negative newspaper ads identify the person or persons responsible for producing them. The law is an outrage.

But not to Robert Watson, an East Greenwich Republican who is minority leader of the Rhode Island House. When a proposal was filed to scrap the mandatory-disclosure law, Watson flipped out, going so far as to smear anonymous critics as “terrorists.”

Referring to a difficult re-election battle he had won several years earlier, Watson said on the floor of the House, “At least you knew who was firing those missiles. At least you knew who was building those bombs and lobbing them into your lap. Mr. Speaker, we’re going to have a bunch of anonymous terrorists playing in our political sandbox, and I’m not sure I agree with that.”

Watson got his way, as the measure was sent to the graveyard of a legislative committee, with politicians saying the 1995 Supreme Court ruling somehow didn’t pertain to Rhode Island.

Watson, by the way, is the state chairman of John McCain’s presidential campaign. McCain is the godfather of a campaign-finance-reform law, much praised by liberals and reformers, that, among other things, bans explicitly political ads by independent groups in the final weeks before an election.

Despite being largely upheld by the Supreme Court (in 2007 the court loosened but did not overturn the ban on independent ads), the McCain-Feingold law, as it is known, is anti-speech to its core, and it’s a shame that so many progressives support it. Political speech in all forms should be given the maximum degree of protection — not regulated to the point of toothlessness.

Watson and McCain deserve each other. And Rhode Island’s disgraceful law is a warning sign of what can happen when politicians decide there’s such a thing as too much freedom of speech.

And . . .

A.T. WALL
He proposed making it harder to cover RI prisons

The ACLU of Rhode Island and the Providence Journal were full of praise this past January, when the Rhode Island Department of Corrections backed off from a proposal that would have made it far more difficult for journalists to cover what goes on in the state’s prison system.

And, yes, the department’s director, A.T. Wall, does deserve credit for not following through on the worst of his ideas (detailed below), unveiled the previous September. But he gets a Muzzle anyway — a warning Muzzle, if you will — for failing to understand right from the start the importance of journalistic access to the men and women behind bars.

Among other things, the original proposal would have:

• Banned interviews with out-of-state inmates (primarily prisoners deemed to be troublemakers in their home states who are sent to Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions, in Cranston).

• Allowed corrections officials to review reporters’ notes and recordings.

• Required a corrections official to be present at all interviews.

• Given corrections officials the power to refuse an interview with an inmate if it were determined that it would not be “sensitive to the feelings and needs of crime victims.”

Significantly, Wall decided to keep the out-of-state ban. And yet Wall is getting credit for showing sensitivity to the needs of the press while still making it harder for reporters to inform us about what goes on — well, behind the wall.

“The public-hearing process works,” Wall said, referring to a session at which members of the media voiced their objections and concerns. “We try hard to balance our need for proper security and the availability [of inmates] for the media.”

That’s fine. It could have been worse. But the media and the ACLU shouldn’t have had to mobilize in the first place. There are few governmental powers more awesome than the power to deny people their freedom. Prisons are already notoriously difficult for journalists to cover. Wall was wrong in his attempt to make it even more difficult.

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