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February 19, 2004

The Providence Journal and Untruth

I hereby dub today, February 19, 2004, as A Day of Complete Astonishment. The Providence Journal, the "news" section of which I'll be hardly inclined to treat as nonfiction hereafter, is hyperventilating over a bill proposed by Rhode Island's governor, Donald Carcieri:

Constitutional scholars and First Amendment advocates reacted with shock yesterday at Governor Carcieri's homeland security proposal, saying it threatens protected free speech and assembly in ways not seen in decades.

No other state in the nation, they said, has attempted such an encroachment on civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism. And they predicted the legislation could never survive a constitutional challenge.

"When I was reading it in the newspaper this morning, my jaw dropped," said Lawrence E. Rothstein, a lawyer who teaches political science at the University of Rhode Island. "It shocked me that anyone would try this."

"Did he do this in writing?" asked Paul McMasters, a nationally recognized expert at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

Carcieri has proposed, among several other steps, making it illegal in Rhode Island to "speak, utter, or print" statements in support of anarchy or government overthrow.

This is simply false. Something not true. A lie. But it goes on for several dozen paragraphs, even citing a media ethics professor who goes along with the deception. The only section that even risks breaking the storyline, presenting the other side, or causing confused brows to furrow comes at paragraphs 16 and 17:

On Tuesday, Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, characterized the 1919 laws as dormant and "blatantly unconstitutional."

Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal said the laws had existed without court challenge and government abuse for nearly a century. He said the lack of prosecutions under these laws "points to the tremendous amount of discretion that has been employed" by prosecutors.

Should this buried slip-of-the-truth inspire sufficient curiosity to read a third of the way through the legalistic bill, which the Projo offers (only online) as a PDF, one's faith in the objectivity and interest in educating readers at the state's major newspaper might be shaken. The essential purpose of the bill is merely to add language to include terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in existing law. In fact, the paragraph that the Providence Journal believes to justify quoting "expert" after "expert" accusing the governor of seeking to become a fascist dictator is Title 11 of the General Laws Chapter 43, Criminal Offenses, Treason and Related Offenses, Advocating forcible overthrow of the government. And the sweeping change that the governor proposes that would "take the state of Rhode Island back 200 years"? The governor would like to add the phrase, "or advocates an act or acts of terrorism."

That's it. That's the news — the actual information — and it somehow didn't find its way into Tom Mooney's breathless reportage on the front page of the Providence Journal.

Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable.

Huh. The Providence Journal's Web folks replaced the picture of their front page to which I had linked to a blank, while every other picture is still available. Curious.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 19, 2004 10:37 AM
News Media