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Editorial/                                                                                         Friday, March 17, 2000
Mayor John Barrett III & NorthAdamsFree.com:
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, To read that article......click here.)

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 here.)

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 controlled media. 

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.


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