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Circuit Judge 'Honored' for Muzzling Speech

Juan Torruella, judge of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, earned a dubious honor this week. He was named a recipient of a Muzzle Award, a recognition given out annually by The Boston Phoenix to "those who've brought dishonor to themselves by trampling on the rights of free speech and personal liberties in New England." Torruella earned this distinction for his authorship of Noonan v. Staples, an opinion that turned libel law on its head by holding that truth is not always a defense. (I get a mention in the write-up about Torruella for a blog post in which I called this "the most dangerous libel decision in decades.")

But Torruella is not the only member of the legal profession to be represented in this year's awards. Another is Patrick Lynch, attorney general of Rhode Island, who is cited for his refusal, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, to sign a letter supporting a federal shield law for journalists, even though a bipartisan group of 41 other state attorneys general had signed it. Among the other holdouts, The Phoenix notes, was Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Lynch said it would have been inappropriate for him to sign the letter because he often calls witnesses before grand juries in criminal cases. Coakley declined to give any explanation.

Another lawyer who earns a mention is Boston city councilor Michael Flaherty, who was council president in 2004 to 2006 when the body was fined for multiple violations of the state's open meeting law. The council followed those fines by urging the state legislature to pass a measure that would make it the only municipal body in the state to be exempt from the open meeting law. Flaherty defended the proposal, contending that the law has a "chilling effect" on public officials.

The awards are compiled by Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor at Northeastern University School of Journalism and author of the blog Media Nation. "With the era of repression and secrecy fostered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney finally over, this should be the best of times for freedom of expression, open government, and civil liberties," he writes. "Yet change comes slowly."

In a companion piece, civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the original inspiration for the Muzzle Awards in 1998, doles out the Muzzle Awards: Collegiate Division.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 9, 2009 at 01:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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