Chuck Turner trashes the First Amendment

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(Cross-posted from Media Nation.)

By Dan Kennedy

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner may or may not end up doing time. But if the indicted councilor has his way, local journalists — including Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe, Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix and Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald — will be subject to legal sanctions for failing to presume that Turner is innocent.

On Friday, the Herald’s Ed Mason reported that Turner had sent a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick asking that a task force be appointed that would investigate “collusion” between federal prosecutors and the media.

Over the weekend, John Guilfoil, the founder and editor of the online magazine Blast, posted the full text of Turner’s screed. In it, Turner calls for nothing less than the abolition of the First Amendment. Guilfoil, a former student of mine, writes, “Five words, Councilor: ‘Congress shall make no law.'”

Turner, in case you’ve forgotten, is under federal indictment, charged with taking cash bribes in connection with the Dianne Wilkerson case.

Tellingly, Turner cites Deuteronomy, the Quran, the Roman Code, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in his argument to muzzle the press, yet makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the First Amendment, which clearly states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Subsequent amendments, as well as Supreme Court decisions, have broadened “Congress” to include all governmental bodies at the federal, state and local levels.)

Turner blasts columns by Vennochi, Reilly and Fitzgerald, saying they have “unashamedly proclaimed my guilt.” He also claims that Globe columnist Adrian Walker’s interview with Ron Wilburn, the cooperating government witness, is proof that the FBI’s affidavit against Turner is full of lies (not how I would interpret it). And Turner includes this tantalizing tidbit:

Even Howie Carr, self proclaimed protector of the public good and verbal slayer of public officials who betray their trust has not even mumbled one word about the fact that the US Attorney’s wire is making accusations against him.

Really? Does anyone know what Turner is referring to? The ball’s in your court, Howie.

Not to save the best part for last, but Turner closes by recommending legal sanctions against journalists who discuss “the ‘evidence’ in the court of public opinion before it has been presented in a court of law,” including:

  • “State legal policy should be significantly reformed to promote respect for the presumption of innocence among state officials, mass media representatives, and citizens.”
  • “Mass media outlets must be prohibited from spreading information that conflicts with the presumption of innocence.”

Now, let me move on to the fallacy at the heart of Turner’s proposal to round up journalists and send them to re-education camp. Yes, the legal system is required to presume that Turner is innocent unless it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that he is not. But the media are under no such constraints.

Turner is free to avail himself of the libel laws if he believes a journalist has said something about him that is false, defamatory and, as he is a public official, made with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. And there are circumstances in which the courts will intervene by way of gag orders on the lawyers in order to balance the First Amendment with the Sixth, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

But this is not North Korea, or even Britain, where the press has far fewer protections than it does in the United States. (I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions with my editor at the Guardian, whose home office is in Manchester, England.) In the U.S., everyone is free to speak and write the truth as he or she sees it.

By the way, I am willing to grant Turner the presumption of innocence. Taking cash from a supplicant shows incredibly poor judgment, but let’s wait and see if it adds up to a criminal act. (Although I was unimpressed by Turner’s claim that the photo might have been doctored — a subject with which Turner has some passing familiarity.)

Regardless of whether Turner is guilty of bribe-taking, though, he has already convicted himself of holding freedom of the press in utter contempt.

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2 Responses to “Chuck Turner trashes the First Amendment”

  1. Gagging Chuck Turner « New England First Amendment Center Says:

    […] we offer a postscript to Chuck Turner’s absurd call for legal sanctions against media outlets that fail to presume his innocence in an ongoing federal […]

  2. Charles Davis Says:

    Thrilled to see such a lively and engaging site!

    cd

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