'Monitor' should not have acquiesced

Last modified: 7/10/2012 12:00:00 AM
Speaker Bill O'Brien's barring Concord Monitor reporters from a State House press conference on a matter of public and legislative concern is wrong and raises serious constitutional issues. As in all things political these days, views of O'Brien's action reflect the sharp divide of public opinion. But the one comment that struck me as odd came from the Monitor's editor when she opined that "If the speaker holds a press conference in his office, he has the right to invite (or disinvite) whomever he chooses."

I do not believe the speaker has this right and suggest that the Monitor reconsider its opinion. Fundamental to all constitutional freedoms are the twin rights: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. O'Brien's ban touched on both. His ban also raises due process and equal protection issues under the federal and state constitutions.

First, the press conference was held on state property by a state official addressing a matter of legislative concern. There is thus state action.

Second, the Monitor was banned because O'Brien took personal offense to a Monitor cartoon, not because the Monitor was a rogue publication and its reporters lacking in credentials. Thus the speaker was "punishing" the Monitor for its publication of the Mike Marland cartoon lampooning the speaker with a Hitler mustache. His ban was unvarnished retaliation based on a publication that the speaker found personally distasteful. By picking and choosing who can attend a public press conference in the speaker's office, O'Brien is allowed to curry favor and choose friendly reporters, more willing to shape his message in a light more favorable to the speaker, a not so subtle form of propaganda.

Third, the banning of a reporter because of political views can have a chilling effect on the press gathering function, as news and access are the currency of the profession and the press may become less willing to criticize if there is a fear that a vibrant dialogue will result in banishment.

Ironically O'Brien banned the Monitor in response to a cartoon that depicted him as a fascist. His actions only serve to give credence to that perception. Sadly, the Monitor which has long been a protector of First Amendment freedoms became complicit with O'Brien when it gave formal recognition of his "right" to ban its reporters from his office. O'Brien's misbehavior is expected. The Monitor's acquiescence is not.

(Steven Gordon of Hopkinton is an attorney with Shaheen & Gordon in Concord.)

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