Mar 19, 2009

Free-speech bankruptcy bailout plan

Earlier this week, the Sacramento Bee editorialized against a troubling court ruling that has left a free-speech group and its former president, Richard McKee, saddled with $86,000 in legal bills and weakened California's free-speech protections.

The ruling, which the Bee called "Orwellian" and the state Supreme Court refused to review, essentially took a law designed to stop government agencies from using the courts to silence their critics and turned it into a tool government agencies could use to silence their critics.

Here's what McKee had to say about the bizarro ruling in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin:
After prosecuting 14 other Public Records Act and Brown Act cases, McKee said he had never heard of the district using the right to free speech as a way to win a case.

The school district can take tapes of meetings and "chop it up, eliminate pieces, because of their right to free speech," McKee said. "Can you imagine how nice it is to control the information to the public? It's so ridiculous you don't know where to start."

The Bee has called for legislative reform to cure this ill, and McKee said that's exactly what he and Terry Francke of Californians Aware plan to do.

"We've kicked some ideas around and believe it could be as simple as changing the anti-SLAPP statute to preclude it from being used in a Brown Act case," McKee told me in an email. The Brown Act protects free speech at local government meetings and the anti-SLAPP law is the one designed to keep the same agencies from silencing critics by dragging them into an expensive lawsuit.

McKee and Francke are looking for a state lawmaker willing to carry the legislation.

Meantime, Francke has made a plea for financial help, since McKee has had to foot most of the $86,000 bill himself. I have already pledged to do my part, which involves subsidizing one of his favorite hobbies at the pub of his choosing.

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