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Judge Under Fire for Blocking Story

Truth is sometimes grittier than we'd prefer, but that is no reason for a judge to block it. Here in Massachusetts, where I practice, many lawyers and commentators are baffled by a judge's decision yesterday to sidestep the First Amendment and block a TV news station from broadcasting a news item that was sure to be shocking for many and painful for some. The news made it out anyway, but not without bruising the Bill of Rights.

First, some background. When two Boston firefighters died fighting a restaurant blaze in August, grief swept over not just their families and friends but, seemingly, all of Massachusetts and well beyond. The men were praised as fallen heroes, and their funerals were attended by thousands of firefighters and any number of dignitaries.

Sometime this week, Boston's WHDH-TV obtained autopsy reports showing startling results: One of the firefighters had a blood-alcohol level of .27 when he died -- three times the legal limit for driving -- and the other had cocaine in his system. As WHDH prepared to report on the findings, the firefighters' union went to state Superior Court, asking Judge Merita Hopkins to block the broadcast. On behalf of WHDH, lawyer Jordana B. Glasgow explained to the judge the First Amendment's prohibition against prior restraint. But the judge issued the injunction anyway, saying, "Even if it was judged a prior restraint on free speech, it's justified in this case." (More details are available in reports from The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald.)

Among Boston-area bloggers, reaction to the injunction has been shock almost equal to their shock at the underlying news story. In fact, "shocking" is the very word Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy used to describe the ruling at his blog Media Nation. "By stopping WHDH-TV (Channel 7) from reporting on autopsy reports that allegedly show two Boston firefighters killed in an August restaurant blaze had abused drugs and alcohol," Kennedy wrote, "Hopkins violated the most basic of First Amendment protections -- the protection against prior restraint." At the blog Massachusetts Liberal, where the judge's order is seen as the outcome of a "shoot the messenger" mentality, the key word is "abomination": "Hopkins ruled that one news outlet could not report the kind of news we don't like to hear -- that even heroes are mortal human beings. That ruling is a bigger abomination than reporting the facts." And Boston Herald media reporter Jessica Heslam, at her Messenger Blog, says Hopkins "trampled on the Constitution" and "has some questions to answer today."

No doubt the judge, on the bench barely a year, found herself between a rock and a hard place. No one can question the heroism of the two firefighters, who died in the most selfless of circumstances. But the incident is a reminder that it is often when speech is at its least popular that the First Amendment is most needed.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 4, 2007 at 04:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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