The city of Boston has a problem with public scrutiny.
Last year, the city agreed to pay $170,000 to settle a lawsuit by a man who was arrested for using his cellphone to record the actions of Boston police officers in a public park. The case set an important precedent that the First Amendment protects the right of ordinary citizens to openly record the actions of public officials when they're performing their duties in public.
Evidently, that episode didn't cause the city to rethink its combative approach to public scrutiny. In August, another Boston citizen posted a video of an altercation with two plainclothes Boston cops. The video, which showed the officers ordering a man to move far away from the scene of an arrest, outraged readers of Photography Is Not a Crime, a blog that advocates for citizens' rights to record public officials. They called the city to complain about the officers' behavior.
One of the callers was a journalism student named Taylor Hardy. He spoke to Boston public information officer Angelene Richardson. Hardy recorded the call and posted a portion of it to YouTube. According to Carlos Miller, author of Photography Is Not a Crime, Richardson responded by filing an application for a criminal complaint against Hardy for wiretapping, a charge that could carry penalties of up to five years in prison. (In a Facebook comment captured by Miller, Hardy claims he obtained Richardson's consent to record the call, which if true would nullify the wiretapping issue.)
An outraged Miller blogged about the incident. "Maybe we can call or e-mail Richardson to persuade her to drop the charges against Hardy considering she should assume all her conversations with reporters are on the record unless otherwise stated," Miller wrote, providing readers with Richardson's work phone number.
That produced still more calls to Richardson's work phone. Apparently, the calls alarmed Richardson, because last week Miller received notice about another application for a criminal complaint. This one accused Miller of witness intimidation, a crime that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
"I've never spoken once to Angeline Richardson, who I'm supposedly intimidating," Miller says. "I've never sent her an e-mail, never made a phone call." And he says that there's been no allegations that his readers have threatened Richardson.
"I've been writing this blog for six and a half years," Miller says. "One of the things we do is I put a phone number up there. I encourage people to call police officers. My readers are very professional. They don't make any threats. There are no allegations of that."
What do Richardson and the City of Boston think about this? We've been trying to contact them for three days, but they haven't responded to any of our calls or e-mails.
Under Boston's justice system, anyone can file an application for a criminal complaint. That leads to a hearing to decide whether there's probable cause to begin a criminal case. Originally, the hearings in Miller's and Hardy's cases were scheduled for this week. But the hearings have now been postponed until next week.