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A Massachusetts district judge ordered a blogger to remove from his website all references to a woman who faced criminal charges related to a car accident that seriously injured a pedestrian. A hearing Monday will bring into question the constitutionality of the order, which some argue violates the First Amendment.
Pittsfield Judge Bethzaida Sanabria-Vega granted a temporary harassment order last week, requiring Dan Valenti to remove “any and all information” referring to Meredith Nilan from “any and all websites, blogs, etc.,” according to Valenti’s attorney, Rinaldo Del Gallo.
Del Gallo said the order is a prior restraint and raises serious First Amendment concerns.
“It is an extremely dangerous time when people can engage in political commentary and are asked to take their websites down,” he said in an interview. The impact "doesn't just extend to bloggers. It would include anyone in journalism."
Nilan was charged with misdemeanor negligent operation of a motor vehicle and leaving the scene of a personal injury accident in connection with a Dec. 8 incident in which a man was injured when hit by Nilan's car while walking his dog. Nilan received a continuation for six months on the negligent operation charge, and the charge of leaving the scene was dismissed.
Valenti covered the case on his website, Planet Valenti. According to Valenti, the website serves as a news medium with a purpose of helping "people connect with their community by giving them information, news, analysis, commentary, opinion, and the like that they would not otherwise get."
“My goal was to bring the story of a man run down and nearly killed by a driver who left the scene prior to police arriving — a story for more than a month hidden and oddly left in the dark — out in the open, as best I could, in a factual manner,” Valenti wrote in his affidavit submitted in response to the temporary harassment order that required him to remove the material.
Nilan, whose father is the chief probation officer of the Berkshire Superior Court, wrote in her affidavit in support of the request for the order that Valenti’s “regular and malicious attack on [her] reputation” represents cyberbullying and harassment.
“Mr. Valenti’s continued vitriol and his repeated inclination to print lies and sensationalize every aspect of my case has made me fear for my personal safety,” she wrote. “He repeatedly said I committed a hit and run and ‘left a man to die’ when that case was unresolved; it has since been adjudicated and the charge dismissed, and he continues to make the allegation of guilt.”
Del Gallo said he will argue in Monday's hearing that the order is unconstitutional. Following the hearing, the judge will decide whether to continue the harassment order in effect.
“The speech addresses political concerns, which is at the core of the First Amendment,” Del Gallo said. “Mr. Valenti neither engaged in fighting words or true threats, which are needed for harassment orders.”
He said that this is a content-based regulation, which requires strict scrutiny, and it would be “an unmitigated disaster” if the order remains.
“Were the plaintiff allowed relief, any person upset with what a journalist is saying about them could get a civil harassment protection order to frustrate speech,” Del Gallo said in a press release. “The ramifications of such a holding would have a profoundly chilling effect on speech that goes to the core of the First Amendment.”
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· The First Amendment Handbook: Statutory restraints -- Prior restraints and the Internet