Friday, March 17, 2000
Mayor John Barrett III &
It must be the soil!
Berkshire County is certainly blessed with an
abundance of first-class, home-grown stuff. Take for example our
garden-variety politicians. First, there is state Rep. Chris Hodgkins
from southern Berkshire demonstrating how onion skin has nothing on him
when it comes to thinness of political hide. Chris is the guy who
launches personal attacks on private citizens who publicly question his
alleged full-time commitment to being state rep as he simultaneously moonlights
in other jobs. (See BerkshireRecordDotCom, Jan 31, 2000,
read that article......click
Now sallying forth from the land up north into the collective consciousness
is yet another pomme-de-terre, this one in the personage of North
Adams Mayor John Barrett III. Mr. Barrett is entertaining one
and all by displaying traits genetically identical to his garden-variety
brother to the south, specifically that remarkable thin skin.
Mr. Barrett's sensitivity to criticism by his political detractors is
truly precedent-setting, or rather, it will be if Mr. Barrett's
libel action against his web-based political critics at NorthAdamsFree.com
ever goes to trial. (To visit NorthAdamsFree.com.....click
Internet law is a burgeoning new field, and Mr. Barrett's name may end-up
being remembered long after he is gone from the political scene.
It will be the Mayor's burden to prove that he is being libeled and slandered
by detractors who are using the Internet as their soapbox rather than the
printing press or letters-to-the-editor page.
Indeed, it is Mr. Barrett who is drawing attention to North Adams and
to his administration of that city, making both, if not the laughing stock
of the entire State of Massachusetts, then certainly the talk of politicians
and libel lawyers nationwide who will be closely watching
this litigation if it goes to trial.
It's a shame too, and quite unnecessary since except for Mr. Barrett's
own publicity about the matter, very few outside of North Adams would ever
have heard of the allegations being made by the Mayor's detractors.
Who would have ever thought of doing a websearch for a site named NorthAdamsFree.com?
Mr. Barrett plainly forgets Harry Truman's wise admonition about getting
out of the kitchen if you can't take the heat.
For the sheer entertainment value of it all, and for those who are watching
as this comedy/legal melodrama unfolds, I pray that Mr. Barrett will continue
to press his lawsuit against his webmastering nemeses. By so doing,
he will surely find himself famous for putting to rest any notion that
politicians should be afforded protection from their critics including
those who choose the World Wide Web as their soapbox.
The real lessons here are not lost on all the politicians and lawyers
who watch as this case proceeds. As simple and local as this matter
would appear on the surface, the fact is that there are lessons here with
great portent for the future, that democratically-elected politicians as
well as totalitarian dictators in every venue and jurisdiction worldwide
are now having to face.
First, is the obvious lesson that a politician who uses the threat of
libel and slander litigation to stifle political criticism is on a fool's
mission. He is doomed to failure in this blossoming Internet age,
not the least of reasons for which is that technically and practically
it is impossible nowadays to enforce censorship on Internet
content since a website that is shut down locally in Massachusetts or anyplace
in the USA can just as easily with the click of a mouse be resurrected
via a website registered in a foreign country where US courts have no jurisdiction.
The second lesson is a bit more subtle: Politicians are only beginning
to deal with the growing realization that the reach and power of the Internet
is fast changing the very nature of political expression and discourse
itself, making the Internet the most powerful venue and tool invented so
far for expression of overt dissent and political criticism.
Third, the Internet surely poses a direct threat to those whose political
survival and control historically depend and rely on locally pliant or
Finally, there is a lesson in the instant case, if it goes forward,
that will actually be of benefit to the folks of North Adams. The
best defense against accusations of libel and slander is always truth.
To prove their respective cases, Mr. Barrett and his detractors will each
and all have to provide evidence to the Court. For Mr. Barrett, that
means providing under oath proof that the allegations being made against
him are factually without merit. For his detractors, that means providing
under oath evidence that the allegations being made against Mr. Barrett
on their website are indeed factual and true. Either way, the truth
will out, and it may turn out that this whole firestorm of controversy
started simply because one more politician tried to silence the messenger
rather than deal with the message.