Showing posts with label Boston Globe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boston Globe. Show all posts

Saturday, August 21, 2021

American soccer traces roots to textile mills

In the first pandemic summer, I watched and adored the limited TV series, The English Game, which depicted the birth of modern soccer, or association football, in the context of industrialization and labor organization in the 19th century.

Fall River Rovers, 1917
For Boston.com, sports writer Hayden Bird now reveals a similar heritage for U.S. soccer in the communities of once abundant mills in my current home region, eastern Rhode Island and the Massachusetts south coast.  Bird explains in the piece:

[T]he early 20th century boom in American soccer is intertwined with the textile industry. The exponential growth of mills in the late 19th century (following the decline of the whaling industry) led to large scale immigration as skilled laborers were funneled in....

Answering the call were people who already had textile experience: those from Lancashire and the valley of Clyde. These regions, as historian Roger Allaway points out, “in addition to being the heart of the English textile industry also was the area of England in which association football [soccer] had most taken root among working class people in those same years."

And because of this, "textiles brought immigration and immigration brought football."

Bird's coverage embedded this video, which YouTuber soccermavn describes as "[p]erhaps the oldest extant professional U.S. soccer footage—snippets from the 1924 U.S. Open Cup final, played on March 30, 1924" in St. Louis, where the Vesper Buick hosted the Fall River, Mass., Marksmen.  The Marksmen prevailed 4-2.

The article is Hayden Bird, American Menace: When Fall River Ruled U.S. Soccer, Boston.com (June 21, 2018).  Hat tip @voteunion (Aaron Wazlavek), J.D.  See also Dan Vaughn, The Ghosts of Fall River, Protagonist Soccer (Oct. 29, 2018).

Friday, June 4, 2021

First Amendment advocate counsels caution, but doesn't rebuff, American right to be forgotten

Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum Senior Fellow for the First Amendment, published an op-ed last week for the "First Five" blog in which he counseled caution, but did not gainsay, newsroom "fresh start," or "right to be forgotten" (RTBF), programs.

Motivated in part by European notions of personal data protection, or informational privacy, especially RTBF, fresh start programs give persons covered in past news an opportunity to apply for the erasure of their coverage from online archives.  For NPR in February, David Folkenflik and Claire Miller reported on trending fresh start programs at major U.S. news outlets, such as The Boston Globe, "Revisiting the Past for a Better Future."  The NPR stories observed that these programs have come about in part because of European legal norms, even for newspapers beyond the reach of European legal jurisdiction.

In 2013, I wrote in a law review article that Americans' expectations of privacy, including RTBF, are in fact consonant with evolving European norms, but American law has been slow to keep pace.  The twin notions of finite punishment for past wrongs and of a second chance for persons who have paid their dues are quintessentially American, I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2014.  Those values are reflected, for example, in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and the Ban the Box campaign.

A prohibitive challenge to RTBF norms in the United States has been the First Amendment, which generally prohibits regulation of the republication of lawfully obtained and truthful information.  Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, the free-speech absolutist bent of the First Amendment contrasts with a more flexible European approach to rights balancing.  Nothing about the First Amendment, however, precludes a private journalistic enterprise, such as the Globe, from erasing content voluntarily.

Like RTBF itself, fresh start programs have been criticized by free speech and mass communication scholars.  They remind us that journalism is the "first rough draft of history."  Tinkering with archives therefore vests private actors with a weighty, not to mention expensive, responsibility on behalf of the public.  Fresh start advocates point out that this work is not dissimilar to the exercise of news judgment in the first instance.  But the perspective problem is not eliminated by time.  There is no way to be sure that our present-day second-guessing of the historical record is more fair and objective than the original judgment, nor sufficiently preservationist for the future.

Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston, S.C.
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Just last week, I visited the Old Slave Mart Museum and other historical sites in Charleston, S.C.  To my eyes, the casual treatment of persons as property in the content of news media in times of slavery, as well as racism evident in later media during Jim Crow, is evidence of horrific injustice and a powerful reminder not to take for granted that one's present vision is free of bias.  What if that record had been erased, rather than preserved?  Could Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s "Finding Your Roots" have identified Ben Affleck's slave-owning ancestor (NPR) if history were redacted?

At the same time, I am an advocate for RTBF in some form, just as I support Ban the Box.  I am devoted to the First Amendment.  But digital media, that is, an internet that "never forgets," confronts our society with a new and qualitatively different challenge from any we have faced before.  Viktor Mayer-Schönberger well described in his 2011 book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, how forgetting, in addition to remembering, is an essential and well evolved part of human social culture.  A failure to forget is an existential threat.

Journalist and academic Deborah L. Dwyer has developed a useful and thought-provoking set of fresh start resources for journalists at her website, Unpublishing the News, cited by Policisnki.  I don't pretend to know whether fresh start, or European RTBF, or some other approach is the best solution, nor whether any of these models will stand the test of time.  I do believe that feeling our way forward is fascinating and necessary.

The op-ed is Gene Policinski, Perspective: News Outlets Need Caution in Offering a "Fresh Start," Freedom Forum (May 26, 2021).

Friday, April 3, 2020

Boston Globe wins access to booking photos, incident reports involving arrests of police officers

In the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on March 12, the Boston Globe won access to booking photographs and incidents reports related to arrests of police officers under the state open records law.

The case arose from the denial of multiple public record requests, including two following State Police arrests of local law enforcement officers for operating motor vehicles while under the influence in 2012 and 2014.  State police resisted disclosure, claiming the records were not public as part of the state's "criminal record offender information" (CORI) database, which is exempt from disclosure by statute.

The exemption of criminal record information systems is the rule rather than the exception in the United States, in theory, to protect personal privacy.  Sometimes persons are never charged, or even arrested, or are exonerated prior to court proceedings, and public policy disfavors sullying reputation by association with police action.  On the opposite end of the criminal justice process, there is concern that even a person who is convicted of a crime will never escape the reputational impact of police involvement, especially in the age of an internet that never forgets.  Critics of non-disclosure policy claim that secrecy undermines accountability, which is especially important for law enforcement; and treats the public paternalistically, as if people cannot understand the relative significance of different stages of involvement with the police and criminal justice system, including the significance of having done one's time.  This tension of competing policy aims, especially as it plays out in the electronic age, and especially as it relates to visual media, implicates "practical obscurity," a conundrum that has dogged access policy for more than four decades and also marks a flashpoint in the trans-Atlantic privacy debate.

Examining the open records law, even as amended by the Massachusetts legislature while appeal was pending, aiming to bolster the state's position on the privacy-access seesaw, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the records not shielded by the CORI statute's exemption for criminal record information. Employing the rule of narrow construction of access exemptions, the court concluded, "[W]e cannot read exemption (a) so broadly as to shield all investigatory materials created by police from disclosure. We therefore conclude that the booking photographs and incident reports sought here are not absolutely exempt from disclosure as public records under exemption (a) 'by necessary implication' of the CORI act."

Moreover, though police had not argued the point, the court ruled the records not exempt as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, at least in the particular context of police as arrestees.  The privacy exemption calls for a balance.  The court explained, "On the privacy side of the scale, we generally 'have looked to three factors to assess the weight of the privacy interest at stake: (1) whether disclosure would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities; (2) whether the materials sought contain intimate details of a highly personal nature; and (3) whether the same information is available from other sources'" (citations omitted).  Also, "privacy factors include the risk of adverse collateral consequences to the individual that might arise from the disclosure of this criminal justice information. 'On the other side of the scale, we have said that the public has a recognized interest in knowing whether public servants are carrying out their duties in a law-abiding and efficient manner'" (citation omitted).

When police are themselves accused of crimes, the balance that might otherwise favor the ordinary citizen swings in favor of public accountability, the court reasoned. "There is a substantial public interest in the disclosure of police incident reports regarding alleged offenses by police officers and public officials that do not result in arraignment. And disclosure of the booking photographs will eliminate confusion as to the identity of those arrested where they may have common names that may be shared by others."

The court's conclusions accord with norms in state access law in the United States.  Though criminal information systems on the whole usually are exempt from disclosure, individual incident reports related to arrest usually are not—notwithstanding the fact that an exempt criminal record database may comprise records that are not exempt individually.  (Booking photos, or mug shots, also, traditionally have not been exempt from disclosure as a class of record, though that has been changing in recent years, because of a cottage industry in privacy invasion, and even extortion, that's cropped up online.)  Personal privacy exemptions are sometimes held to protect personal identity ad hoc, within police records as a class, and incident reports without resulting arrest may be exempt from disclosure.  But personal privacy exemptions typically implicate a balance, and courts tend to favor access when public officials are under scrutiny, especially when law enforcement officers are suspected of violating the law.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, No. SJC-12690 (Mar. 12, 2020) (Justia, Suffolk Law).  Chief Justice Gants wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Media didn't totally lose in Boston Globe access case over show cause criminal procedure

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled against The Boston Globe in the Spotlight team's bid for access to the court records of a narrow class of show cause criminal hearings.  The case is a loss for access advocates, but not wholly.  The court did not deviate from established analyses for access to the judicial records.  And the court used its superintendence power to require data collection for public scrutiny of what happens in these shadowy hearings going forward.

I wrote about this case and these hearings on The Savory Tort in May.  This particular class of "show cause" hearing is a peculiar creature of Massachusetts law and practice, in which a court clerk, not a judge, gets a chance to second-guess police and refuse to issue a criminal complaint, ending a case.  On the up side, this is a process barrier that protects would-be criminal defendants from harsh consequences in minor matters that don't warrant the expenditure of judicial resources, also encouraging alternative dispute resolution.  On the down side, critics have suspicions about these proceedings being used to protect the powerful, to show favoritism among attorneys, and, willfully or not, to effect race and other forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The Globe sought access specifically to records of the sub-class of these hearings in which clerks found probable cause, yet refused to issue criminal complaints.  Public data about these hearings show big disparities among courts in the prevalence of these outcomes, which occur about 9,000 per year in the commonwealth, fueling speculation as to clerks' motives and rationales.  Making matters worse, there is inconsistency in how well clerks record and track what happens in the hearings, often leaving a scant record for review later, whether by a court, public oversight authority, or investigative journalist.

Photo by tfxc. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
The Globe argued for access under common law, the First Amendment, and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  In today's ruling, the court rejected access on all three bases.  In doing so, though, the court colored within the lines of existing access doctrine.

Most compelling, first, was the Globe's common law argument: "not without merit," the court conceded.  The court acknowledged that the common law presumption of access to court records is known to attach to three classes of records: criminal cases, search warrants and affidavits after service, and public inquiries.  The court rejected analogy to criminal cases, because the show cause hearing occurs before a criminal case is initiated.  Rather, the proper analogy, the court reasoned, is a grand jury refusal to indict, which is sealed presumptively at common law.  The court also rejected analogy to pre-complaint search warrants, reasoning that the appropriate analogy is to the search warrant denied, or not yet served, when the public interest still weighs in favor of secrecy.

Pressing on the scale in favor of analogy to secret proceedings at common law was the privacy interest of the accused.  Here the broader context of the contemporary internet and technology as a threat to personal privacy overshadowed the court's logic.  The court reasoned that a principal common law rationale for secrecy in grand jury proceedings and in denied search warrants, namely, protection of the reputation of the innocent, is powerfully implicated in today's world, when a public record of a show cause hearing could turn up online.  There it would be accessible to everyone, including landlords and employers, who might discriminate against a person who never suffered a criminal complaint.

For the record, this argument for privacy and reputational integrity pulls at even my skeptical heart strings, as I have advocated for American adoption of the European online erasure concept in precisely this vein, notwithstanding First Amendment objections.  That said, I admit, it's a bit troubling to see this problem of unwarranted discrimination arising in the private misuse of information sneaking in through the back door of common law access and accountability analysis as a justification for government secrets.  Arguably the solution to the misuse of information is to do something about the person who misuses information, rather than redacting the free flow of information itself.  But that's a debate for another day.

Second, the court's First Amendment analysis tracked the common law analysis.  On the up side, the court employed the now long known, if no less opaque and controverted, "experience and logic" test of First Amendment access to the courts.  Building upon the analogy of the show cause hearing to grand jury secrecy, access was bound to fail both prongs of the First Amendment test.  Analogy naturally doomed the experience analysis, because pre-complaint criminal process has never been public.  And the privacy concerns fueled failure of the logic test.  The problem with "experience and logic" always has been that its results are foreordained by how one thinks about the hearing or record to which access is sought. 

Third, the court wrote that it never before has construed the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights more broadly than the First Amendment with regard to judicial access, and it saw no reason to do so today.  That disappoints me mostly just from the broad standpoint of liking creative state judicial construction of state constitutions as an instance of the 50-state-laboratory theory of our federalism.  In an age of paralysis in Washington—think gerrymandering—state constitutional law is a promising way forward.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Faithful to access doctrine, the court pointed out that upon its very same grand jury analogy, it remains possible for an intervening movant, say, an investigative journalist, to seek access to a show cause record on a case by case basis.  This is a lesser known, and for my money under-utilized, access strategy, so it's pleasing to see the court stamp its imprimatur.  Common law access and secrecy are both presumptions, and each may be rebutted.  The court explained, "In considering individual records requests, the clerk-magistrate should balance the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence that might be served by making the requested records public against the risk that disclosure would unfairly result in adverse collateral consequences to the accused."

Transparency may win out, the court advised, in matters of public interest.  "[W]here the accused is a public official, the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence are at their apex if the conduct at issue occurred in the performance of the official's professional duties or materially bears on the official's ability to perform those duties honestly or capably."  That's a key check on clerks who might give the politically powerful a break—as long as watchdogs have an inkling to ask.

How will watchdogs know when something is amiss?  Even the court seemed somewhat concerned about the "wide disparities" in dismissed matters in the Globe's data set, e.g., probable cause with no criminal complaint issuing, one year "from a high of 43.9 percent in the Gloucester Division to a low of 0.2 percent in the Chelsea Division."  Though expressly eschewing any conclusion from the numbers, the court observed that "the magnitude of the apparent differences among courts suggests that different clerk's offices might have very different philosophies regarding the adjudication of these hearings."

To help the watchdog, the court exercised its power of superintendence over lower courts to compel electronic recordings of show cause hearings, preserving the record of judicial reconsideration in appropriate cases, and careful compilation of data about the secret hearings, including the race and gender of persons accused, and the names of attorneys in cases of private complainants.  Courts are expected to come into compliance in a year's time and to report anonymized statistics publicly.

Those measures hardly open the door to secret proceedings the way the Globe wanted, and they do nothing about the problem of clerks appointed through political connections playing an outsized role in the criminal charging process.  But the Globe got better than nothing, and maybe the door is cracked open just enough to deter dubious conduct and to squeeze some accountability out through a shaft of sunshine.

The decision against the Globe's petition for declaratory relief came from a unanimous panel of the Supreme Judicial Court, comprising six of the seven justices, and was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.  The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681 (Mass. Sept. 9, 2019).

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Boston Globe presses high court for access to secret criminal hearings

In fall 2018, the Spotlight team at The Boston Globethat Spotlight team—published a powerful exposĂ© on "secret courts" (limited free access) in Massachusetts criminal justice.  Now a related case, argued May 7, is pending before the Commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court.

Julian Assange supporters' sign in front of Ecuador embassy, London, Aug.
22, 2012 (by wl dreamer, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Secret courts are the zombie of First Amendment access in the judiciary. We kill them in constitutional litigation, think they're dead, and suddenly your state courts have been infected and overrun by a whole new horde.  More often than not, new secret court systems blossom to protect the rich and powerful—infamously such as one-time GE CEO Jack Welch whilst in divorce court—from the public scrutiny that attaches to the rest of us dregs, when anyone cares to look. That correlation makes secret courts' resilience a peculiarly American counterweight to our tradition of public justice in open courtrooms.

Yet I put "secret courts" in quotation marks, because it's not clear exactly what are these secret proceedings exposed by the Spotlight team.  They're called "show cause hearings" in Massachusetts law, but even the term "hearing" seems generous.  Under state law, in the absence of an arrest, a criminally accused is entitled to a "hearing" before the court clerk to determine whether charges should issue.  That means the clerk is second-guessing police before the case actually reaches court.

This happens tens of thousands of times per year, the Globe reported.  These "hearings" are not docketed and may leave no paper trail, so if charges are not filed, there is no official record left behind.  The statute that authorizes these hearings pertains principally to misdemeanors, but may be and is used for felony charges, too, in about one in eight hearings, the Globe reported.  The statute itself does not require secrecy, but that's how the process has shaken out.  The Supreme Judicial Court approved secrecy in these hearings, likening them in a 2007 decision to historically secret grand jury proceedings.  But these show cause hearings much more resemble the California preliminary criminal hearings that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 must be open presumptively to the public under the First Amendment.

While the ostensible purpose of this process is to protect the reputation of accused persons while weeding out frivolous claims, it seems many clerks have turned these hearings into an ADR process.  Keeping the accused's name off the records is a bargaining chip to leverage apologies, restitution, or an informal kind of probation.  Outcomes in this vein can be positive for victim and accused; there's no disputing that.  But Spotlight also documented victims of crime and violence who felt their experiences were devalued in secret leniency.  No-charge results have proven problematic especially when emboldened accused persons have gone on to commit violent offenses.

And it's worse than that.  Because as tends to happen in secret justice, persons of privilege—wealth, political clout, social connections, mere representation by a lawyer, which is not required before charges, and maybe mere whiteness, based on disparate-impact statistics, according to Globe research—has a lot to do with what charges get weeded out without a record being made.  Moreover, the Globe reported:

The state’s 68 clerk magistrates at District and Boston Municipal courts operate with enormous discretion to halt criminal proceedings even though many have slender qualifications: About 40 percent of clerks and their assistants ... lack law degrees, one clerk magistrate did not go to college at all, and another has only an associate’s degree.

Often to the frustration of police, some clerks reject charges in big numbers.  "In 2016 and 2017, nearly 82 percent of cases never made it out of a secret hearing in Chelsea," the Globe reported.

Bills pending in the legislature would require a presumption of openness in these proceedings.  But the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau all come down on the side of privacy for accused persons.  This is an old story; the ACLU has been torn famously over access and privacy.  I don't mean to be access-absolutist about this, either.  In my view, a big part of the problem stems from our society's overuse of the criminal justice system (read: drug crime) paired with excessive, punitive consequences for criminal-justice involvement (cf. Ban the Box).

1780 Massachusetts Constitution
In the case now pending before the Supreme Judicial Court, the Globe seeks access to records of show-cause hearings in which no charges issued.  The Globe reasons that these court hearings cannot be erased utterly from the public sphere.  That logic is backed up by the Supreme Court's 1986 treatment of California preliminaries, in which media sought records after the fact of closed hearings, as well as clear circuit precedent in the intervening years condemning secret dockets as antithetical to constitutional access to information.  The Commonwealth argued on behalf of trial courts to uphold the grand-jury analogy, reasoning that properly closed hearings yield properly closed records.

I would like to see the SJC take into account that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is more expansive than the First Amendment.  Before the First Amendment was even a thing, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (my italics) recognized:

Art. XVIII. A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives; and they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681.  Watch the oral argument online at Suffolk Law.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Anti-SLAPP gone wild: Massachusetts tightens the reins



The anti-SLAPP cases kept coming from the Massachusetts appeals courts in May.  I posted previously on anti-SLAPP in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in February.  This posting describes three recent holdings, the middle of which substantially revised—and tightened—the anti-SLAPP qualification analysis.  The next two paragraphs recap some background on anti-SLAPP; skip right down to the cases if you like.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute is Mass. Gen. L. ch. 231, § 59H.

For a quick recap, “anti-SLAPP” refers to state statutes designed to forestall tort claims in “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs).  The prototypical SLAPP might be a land developer’s suit against environmental protestors for interference with the developer’s prospective economic relations.  The protestors are motivated by First Amendment right to speak and petition and are not acting wrongfully.  So, the logic goes, they should not be tied up in pricey and complex litigation having to assert the First Amendment as an affirmative defense.  Rather, they are entitled to a speedy dismissal.  In various forms and fashion across the states, anti-SLAPP statutes allow expedited process before the trial courts to dispense summarily with cases that ultimately would or should come out in defendants’ favor.

Furthermore for quick recap, I despise anti-SLAPP statutes.  They are yet another crutch for defense lawyers—complementing a broad array of defense privileges in common law and constitutional law—to cloak the perpetrators of defamation, privacy invasion, interference, and other torts in the false light (if you will) of constitutional holy writ.  Through unduly expedited process, anti-SLAPP deprives plaintiffs out of the gate of a fair chance to discover the damning evidence of defendants’ wrongful conduct—evidence often required by the aforementioned broad array of defenses, thus compounding the already ratcheted-up hurdles a plaintiff with meritorious cause must clear.

At ABA meetings, I have heard the defense lawyers of transnational mass media conglomerates speak of anti-SLAPP bills in the same tender timbre one employs to share photos of a newborn.  They are especially fond of anti-SLAPP laws that award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing defendant; imagine that Goliath bill arriving in David’s mailbox.  Such cooing should be evidence enough that the playing field has been unleveled.  And I was a defense lawyer, so I know of whom I speak.

That said, I would be foolish to assert that anti-SLAPP motions don’t often reach just results.  An unlevel playing field does not mean that the winning team is not the better.  I contend instead that anti-SLAPP gives a trial judge too much power to ballpark “right” and “wrong” in the absence of the fair evidentiary confrontation that our adversarial system requires.  These cases illustrate how the Massachusetts appellate courts are struggling to implement the state anti-SLAPP law fairly.

(1) The Case of the Ex-Spouse Who Won’t Let It Go

After what must have been an ugly divorce in the 1990s, Ms. St. Germain was left with a permanent protective order of no contact against her former husband, Mr. O’Gara.  In 2014, after receiving contact via post, St. Germain complained to police that O’Gara had violated the protective order.  Police arrested, charged, and then dismissed charges against O’Gara, who in turn sued St. Germain on various civil theories—breach of contract, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress—for the police report that had precipitated his arrest.

Holding O’Gara’s civil suit “based entirely on [St. Germain’s] petitioning activity,” the court dismissed the civil suit upon St. Germain’s anti-SLAPP special motion, reversing the superior court.  The court reiterated that petitioning activity under the Massachusetts statute is to be construed broadly, “‘similar in purpose to the protections afforded public officials by the doctrine of governmental immunity’” (quoting precedent).  “Furthermore, § 59H covers petitioning activity regardless of whether it concerns a public or purely private matter.”

The statute first burdened defendant St. Germain, as special movant, with proving by preponderance that O’Gara’s lawsuit was based solely on her police report as petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  Second, under the burden-shifting procedure of the statute, O’Gara would be compelled to prove by preponderance that St. Germain’s petition “‘(1) … was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law and (2) … caused actual injury.’”

The trial judge had erred by skipping the first step of the inquiry and justifying discovery upon a “credible claim of injury caused by [St. Germain].”  Rather, first, St. Germain was correct in asserting that O’Gara’s suit concerned her police report solely as petitioning.  O’Gara had asserted that St. Germain was motivated by hostility, besides petitioning.  But the court concluded that whether or not she bore such motive was immaterial to the purely petitioning nature of the report.  Second, St. Germain was reasonable in believing her police report legally founded, despite the later dismissal of charges.  I.e., the police report was not a sham.

The case is O’Gara v. St. Germain, No. 15-P-1711 (Mass. App. Ct. May 11, 2017) (Justia).


Four incidents of alleged abuse or neglect of patients in a unit of the Steward Carney Hospital in Boston resulted in a mass dismissal of unit staff, including nurses.  Discussing the employment shake-up publicly in email to hospital staff and in statements to The Boston Globe, with a state investigation still underway, hospital administrators were vague on particulars.  The state later blamed three incidents on only one mental health counselor, and the fourth incident on staff, the latter conclusion the subject of ongoing legal contest.  Plaintiff nurses sued the hospital for defamation, and the hospital responded with an anti-SLAPP special motion. 

The Supreme Judicial Court, per Justice Barbara Lenk on May 23, reached a mixed result and remanded, furthermore finding occasion to tighten the requirements for an anti-SLAPP motion to succeed. 

Again illustrating the broad construction of petitioning activity, on the first step of the anti-SLAPP test, the hospital successfully asserted that the nurses’ lawsuit concerned statements to the press solely as protected petitioning, because the statements were “‘made to influence, inform, or at the very least, reach governmental bodies—either directly or indirectly’” (quoting precedent).  “The key requirement of this definition of petitioning is the establishment of a plausible nexus between the statement and the governmental proceeding.”  The Court held that statements to the Globe passed muster as indirectly aimed at state investigators  However, email to hospital staff, intended only for internal circulation, did not pass the test.

Here the Court steered off the road.  Initially the Court was flummoxed: what to do with a split outcome between allegedly defamatory statements?  Recall that the defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit concerned “solely” defendant’s petitioning activity.  What happens when some statements are petitioning and some are not?  Perhaps the anti-SLAPP motion must fail, because the defendants’ activity was not, then, purely petitioning.  Or perhaps the petitioning activity alone, here the Globe statements, advance to the second step of the test, burden shifting for the plaintiff to prove sham.  If plaintiff cannot prove sham petitioning, defamation might be dismissed in part.  The design of the complaint cannot be dispositive, for plaintiffs could evade anti-SLAPP by parsing counts.

That issue, however, proved to be only the crest of a hill concealing the drop off of a cliff.  For then the Court plunged into angst over the very enterprise of the anti-SLAPP analysis.  If a defendant cannot prove that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, can the lawsuit not be a SLAPP?  Inversely, if a defendant proves that the lawsuit is about solely petitioning activity, and the petitioning was not a sham, does it follow necessarily that the lawsuit should be dismissed as a SLAPP?

Suppose, the Court proffered (quoting Illinois precedent), that defendant “‘spread malicious lies about an individual while in the course of genuinely petitioning the government for a favorable result.’”  The defendant passes muster under step one (if the statements are not parsed).  And the plaintiff cannot show sham under step two.  Case dismissed.  Yet “[i]f a plaintiff's complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendant[’s] actions were genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.”

Thus the Court exposed a basic constitutional dilemma in anti-SLAPP: The plaintiff has a right to petition, too; plaintiff’s lawsuit is a constitutionally protected petition to the judiciary.  I would add, ignorance of this fact is why anti-SLAPP statutes, if not properly reined in by the courts, unfairly overcorrect in defendants’ favor.  One can argue that this operation of anti-SLAPP is a prophylactic protection for the petitioning rights of the defendant, thereby demanding that we tolerate dismissal of some meritorious causes of action—like the problematic “actual malice” rule of public-figure defamation.  But that argument fails to explain why the defendant’s petition right is superior to the plaintiff’s.

To solve this problem and mitigate its constitutional dilemma, the Supreme Judicial Court added a second way for the plaintiff to prove its way out of anti-SLAPP dismissal in step two of the test.  Recall that plaintiff bore the burden of prove sham petitioning by the defendant (and actual injury).  Well now the plaintiff may prove sham petitioning or plaintiff’s “suit was not ‘brought primarily to chill’ the [defendant]’s legitimate exercise of its right to petition.”  Thus, recalling the “malicious lies” example above, suppose furthermore that the plaintiff cared not one way or the other about the matter of defendant’s petition to the government.  Plaintiff rather was concerned with the malicious lies, however the matter was decided.  “A necessary but not sufficient factor in this analysis will be whether the [plaintiff]’s claim at issue is ‘colorable or … worthy of being presented to and considered by the court,’ … i.e., whether it ‘offers some reasonable possibility’ of a decision in the party’s favor.” 

On remand, then, the nurses would be able to avoid anti-SLAPP dismissal on the Globe statements, as well as the email, by showing the Globe statements a sham petition—unlikely—or by showing “that their defamation claim, viewed as a whole, is nonetheless not a ‘SLAPP’ suit.”  If they cannot meet their burden either way, then the hospital will be entitled to dismissal as to the Globe statements, the case over the email persisting.

The change is a dramatic one.  So modifying the plaintiff’s burden on step two of the test forces the trial court to confront head on the undisguised, central question of the anti-SLAPP inquiry.  Notwithstanding precedents that eschew focus on a plaintiff’s motives, the analysis inevitably steers the court back to ask whether the plaintiff is aggrieved by the hurtfulness of what the defendant did, or by the defendant’s aim to influence government.  For my money, one might as well ask that question at the start and be done with it.

The case is Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital, No. SJC-12141 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).


Justice Lenk issued a second opinion on anti-SLAPP for the Supreme Judicial Court the same day, May 23.  The case better fits the prototype anti-SLAPP mold in being a dispute over property development.  The Court remanded for application of its new Blanchard standard (case (2), immediately above).

In 2011, the plaintiff purchased a five-story brick building, 477 Harrison Avenue, Boston, to redevelop it for residential use.  Defendant JACE Boston owned neighboring 1234 Washington Street, which shared a wall with the Harrison property.  Defendant intended at some point to redevelop its property, too, and a competition ensued.  The parties disputed redevelopment plans in years of administrative process and litigation.  Finally in 2014, plaintiff sued defendant in superior court for abuse of process and for violation of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A, § 11, a broad state prohibition on unfair competition.

Upon defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court determined that the defendant could not meet its step-one burden to show that the lawsuit was about solely petitioning activity, without other substantial basis.  The Court rather found that the abuse of process claim passed muster under step one, concerning solely defendant’s petitioning.  On step two, the plaintiff could not show that defendant’s petitioning, with respect to the abuse of process claim, was entirely a sham, that is devoid of factual and legal basis.  Nevertheless, under the newly announced Blanchard standard, the plaintiff on remand must be afforded the opportunity to resist dismissal by proving that its lawsuit is not a SLAPP—that is, “the motion judge may conclude with fair assurance,” “‘that [plaintiff’s] primary motivating goal in bringing its claim, viewed in its entirety, was “not to interfere with and burden defendants” … petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to [the plaintiff] from [the] defendant[’s] alleged … [legally transgressive] acts.’”

Faced with “the novel issue as to whether all or only some of a [defendant’s] petitioning activities must be shown to be illegitimate in order to defeat a special motion to dismiss,” the Court decided that the plaintiff must “show that the entirety of its abuse of process claim is not a ‘SLAPP’ suit” to resist dismissal in full.  Otherwise, dismissal (and fees) are granted only for the “portion of the abuse of process claim arising out of the defendant[’s] protected petitioning activities.” 

The case is 477 Harrison Avenue v. JACE Boston, LLC, No. SJC-12150 (Mass. May 23, 2017) (Justia).

[UPDATE, Nov. 11, 2019: The SJC today issued another installment in 477 Harrison saga.  Remanding, the Court determined that abutters' counterclaims were retaliatory, not substantive, so should not be sustained against the developer.  I'll say again, anti-SLAPP was not designed to protect developers in land feuds, much less to generate multiple interlocutory dispositions, and this case speaks directly to the pathology of anti-SLAPP.]