Tuesday July 10, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- A judge on Monday lifted the harassment prevention order against local blogger Dan Valenti that had kept him from writing about Meredith Nilan and forced him to remove old blog posts about her.

After a daylong hearing in Central Berkshire District Court, Judge Mark Mason said Valenti's posts didn't rise to the level of "fighting words" or "true threats," but warned the blogger that he came close to that in one of them.

Valenti, of Stockbridge, said Mason's ruling was a victory for him and for all journalists.

District Court Judge Bethzaida Sanabria-Vega on June 27 ordered Valenti to remove references to the Pittsfield woman from his Planet Valenti blog.

Dan Valenti prepares for Monday’s hearing in Central Berkshire District Court.
Dan Valenti prepares for Monday’s hearing in Central Berkshire District Court. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Valenti complied and took down all posts that dealt with the December car-versus-pedestrian accident in which Nilan was the driver. The accident left Peter Moore, a local man who was out walking his dog on a city street, severely injured. Valenti began blogging about the case after The Eagle broke the story in early January.

Sanabria-Vega set Monday's hearing to review the order.

Valenti had authored about 45 posts about the case. The coverage included speculation that there had been a cover-up in the case because Meredith Nilan was the daughter of Clifford Nilan, the head of the Berkshire Superior Court's Probation Department.

Valenti, in court documents, said that this was "never made as a statement of fact, to my knowledge" and was "a supposition based on her actions and the actions and position of her father."

Meredith Nilan's case has since been decided. On June 6, one count of negligent operation of a motor vehicle against her was continued without a finding for six months. A charge of leaving the scene of a personal injury accident was dismissed.

Nilan called Valenti's blogs about her "constant," "full of lies," and sensationalistic.

Valenti called his coverage "intermittent," forthright and honest.

On Monday, Nilan and her attorney, Mark Brennan, and Valenti and his attorney, Rinaldo Del Gallo III, appeared before Mason, a Springfield District Court judge called in to hear the case.

William C. Newman, the director for the Western Massachusetts Legal Office, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, also made an appearance on behalf of Valenti.

During the hearing, Nilan said she feared for her safety and was under "continued emotional stress" because of Valenti's blogging. She also believed that a recent death threat was connected to Valenti's "words." A Las Vegas man is facing criminal charges for allegedly threatening Nilan's life. He is scheduled to be arraigned next month.

On cross examination by Del Gallo, Nilan admitted there had never been a "face-to-face" confrontation between herself and Valenti and that Valenti had never threatened to physically harm her or her property.

Valenti told the court this was the first time he had ever seen Nilan in person.

Both Del Gallo and Newman argued that the original judge's order was a blatant violation of both the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment on the right to free speech as well as similar articles in the state constitution.

Nilan said she wasn't there to argue about "free speech," but was there because she feared for her "personal safety.

Dan Valenti’s attorney, Rinaldo Del Gallo, argued that the original judge’s order was a blatant violation of both the U.S. Constitution’s
Dan Valenti’s attorney, Rinaldo Del Gallo, argued that the original judge’s order was a blatant violation of both the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment on the right to free speech as well as similar articles in the state constitution. ( Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
"

While Judge Mason found there was no evidence that Valenti's writings rose to the level of harassment, he said one of Valenti's posts in which the author opined that he wished there was a place to "put down" people came close to a true threat.

"You're walking a very, very fine line," the judge told Valenti.

Valenti said it was written as "hyperbole" and not meant to be taken literally.

With the order now re moved, Valenti is free to write about Nilan. When asked if he had plans to do just that, he answered, "We'll see what happens."

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
aamelinckx@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6249.
On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx