Right call, not a victory

Wednesday July 11, 2012

A Central Berkshire District Court judge made the proper call on a First Amendment basis Monday in lifting the harassment prevention order Meredith Nilan had filed against local blogger Dan Valenti. But while it was a victory for Mr. Valenti it was not a victory for all journalists.

Free speech and freedom of the press are concepts at the foundation of our way of life and judges must be careful not to set precedents that threaten them. District Court Judge Bethzaida Sanabria-Vega undermined those principles June 27 when she ordered Mr. Valenti to remove all references to Meredith Nilan, who struck and severely injured a Pittsfield man with her car last December, from his blog, and Central Berkshire District Court Judge Mark Mason's ruling restored order.

Ms. Nilan is the daughter of Clifford Nilan, the head of the Berkshire Superior Court's Probation Department, and the initial handling of her case led to considerable Internet speculation about possible favoritism because of her father's influence. Much of this speculation was unkind and a Las Vegas man who allegedly threatened her life is facing criminal charges. We don't doubt that Ms. Nilan found this attention to be upsetting, but while she asserted in court she wasn't there to argue about free speech, that is what this case was indeed about.

Courtesy of the Internet, journalists now come in all stripes, and it is the responsibility of bloggers to act responsibly and in so do doing protect the right to a free press and not hide behind it. In their battles with the traditional media that they regard as hidebound by all their rules involving fairness and fact-checking, bloggers often walk "a very, very fine line," as Judge Mason cautioned Mr. Valenti in reference to one of his comments. Irre sponsibly crossing that line can invite court actions that may shake the First Amendment. Monday's decision was less a journalistic victory than the dodging of a bullet.

As for the Nilan case, it was decided last month when one count of negligent operation of a motor vehicle was continued without a finding for six months and another charge was dismissed. There is really nothing more to be said, or blogged.


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