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The fifth annual Muzzle Awards (continued)


Biddeford City CouncilPulling the plug on public-access cable

The truth of the matter is that Dorothy Lafortune sounds like a piece of work. In a Portland Press Herald profile, Lafortune comes off as someone who believes the world is out to get her. She’s had a lot of problems, both business and personal — and, according to her, it’s always been someone else’s fault: Biddeford city officials, bankers, even a local postman whom she accuses of delaying her mail.

"There has been a criminal network in Maine going on for some time, and I realized it 10 years ago," she told the paper. "If this doesn’t stop, people are going to find themselves in a very bad situation, and this is not a conspiracy theory I have in my mind."

Now, at this point, a smart reporter caught in the same room with a source such as Lafortune will start looking at the door and mumbling about having to get back to the office. But Lafortune has a right to air her views. And that’s exactly what she used to do on Biddeford’s public-access cable channel — until last year.

The offending episode of Lafortune’s Maine Forum was broadcast last July. Lafortune alleged that she and her mother, who’d lost her home in a foreclosure, had been victimized by officials from "the local level all the way up." City councilors — fearing, they claimed, that they might be opening the city to legal liability — yanked her show off the air. The Maine ACLU sued, and a federal magistrate found that the city had violated Lafortune’s free-speech rights. So in May, the council went one step further, shutting down the public-access channel until it can draft comprehensive regulations.

But there’s more — much more. It appears that the Biddeford councilors are profoundly unhappy with free speech. Last fall, Councilor Jim Gratello demanded that his then-colleague, Richard Rhames, resign after Rhames criticized US sanctions against Iraq — and claimed that "we all have blood on our hands" — at a post–September 11 vigil. Rhames himself, whose own appearances on cable have riled some of the more conservative flag-waving elements, is a party to the legal action regarding public access, demanding that the channel be restored. Federal judge Brock Hornby turned Rhames down, but also made it clear that the channel must be put back on the air sooner rather than later, and that the regulations the council eventually unveils must be "content-neutral." (Good luck: Gratello has said that public access "is a privilege, not a right." Perhaps he also favors licensing soapboxes, lest they be used as speaking platforms on the city common by irresponsible persons who don’t understand they’re enjoying a privilege, not a right.)

City officials also went ballistic and demanded an apology when the student newspaper at the nearby University of New England published a sophomoric column by a sophomore calling Biddeford a "trash-burning, blue-collar, cop-crazed, run-down mill town with nothing more to offer than a Wal-Mart, Shop ’n Save and good fast food." According to a column by the Press Herald’s Jack Beaudoin, the city’s bullying ways resulted in not one but two apologies — one from the student, the other from university president Sandra Featherman. Of course, the councilors had a right to voice their objections, but by directing their ire at an institution that depends on the city for everything from its tax status to development plans, they crossed the line into the sort of intimidation that chills free speech.

Apparently it never occurred to the councilors that they should simply let their critics rant, whether it be on public-access cable or in the local campus paper. That’s the mature — and constitutional — thing to do.

Massachusetts Department of EducationMCAS critic disinvited from school conference

There’s something about pure, unmitigated brazenness that makes you pause in admiration.

There’s something about the Massachusetts Department of Education.

In May 2001, noted educator Alfie Kohn was asked to give the keynote address at a conference in Northampton organized by charter- and public-school officials, as well as educators from several colleges, including Smith, Mount Holyoke, and UMass. Kohn — an outspoken opponent of high-stakes tests such as the notorious MCAS exam — was asked to speak on "The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools."

That happens to be the title of one of Kohn’s books. And it apparently raised the hackles of Department of Education officials, who were afraid that Kohn was going to enter their lair and denounce their cherished MCAS. So they threatened to withhold federal grant money from the conference unless Kohn was disinvited. Critic silenced. Problem solved.

Until December, that is, when the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the department — and this rather astounding example of government censorship became public knowledge.

The Department of Education, naturally, claims the disinvitation had nothing to do with censorship. "It was a charter-school conference put together especially to be a platform for charter schools to share ideas with traditional public schools," department spokeswoman Heidi Perlman told the Boston Globe. "He has the right to say or believe whatever he wants, but at that conference it wasn’t appropriate."

But lawyer Michael Albert, who’s handling the case for the ACLU on behalf of Kohn and several other plaintiffs, calls that claim "ridiculous." In an e-mail to Muzzle Central, Albert said that "other speakers at the conference spoke about the same topic (testing and assessment), without any challenge or objection from DOE. Besides, ‘assessment’ was one of the topics that the organizers of the conference specifically chose to cover — again with no objection from DOE until someone ... learned that Alfie would be speaking."

Here’s just a sample of what state officials didn’t want local educators to hear, taken from Kohn’s Web site, "A plague has been sweeping through American schools, wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers and administrators. Ironically, that plague has been unleashed in the name of improving schools. Invoking such terms as ‘tougher standards,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘raising the bar,’ people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country."

The Weld, Cellucci, and Swift administrations have made the MCAS a centerpiece of their education-reform agenda, despite research showing that high-stakes testing is, at best, an imperfect tool.

By moving so boldly to silence their critics, Department of Education officials look weak and foolish. Worse, they have revealed themselves as censors willing to trample on the First Amendment rather than tolerate dissent.

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Issue Date: July 4 - 11, 2002
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