I’m disappointed in the Plymouth Independent. I was looking forward to the return of professional local journalism to Plymouth before the Plymouth Independent started publishing in November 2023. I have a great deal of respect for journalists, having studied journalism at Northeastern University for my undergraduate degree. However, the PI’s recent inability to admit when it has done something wrong makes me second guess my initial enthusiasm for it.

Here’s what happened: On June 11, 2024, Plymouth Independent reporter Fred Thys came to the Select Board meeting and began recording a section of the meeting on his phone without alerting the Select Board or the general audience in attendance that he was doing so. That was illegal.

When the recording issue was brought to my attention by the town manager, I made a general announcement, not calling out Mr. Thys specifically, to inform anyone in attendance that making an audio recording of the meeting without notifying others in attendance was illegal. That announcement included a description of the possible penalties for making a secret recording in violation of the law.

It was at that point that Fred Thys stood up and identified himself as a reporter for the Plymouth Independent and stated he was making a recording to use in his reporting on the meeting. The meeting then proceeded without any issues related to this secret recording incident.

Imagine my displeasure when the Plymouth Independent publishes a story eight days later saying that I threatened Fred Thys with jail time while minimizing and excusing Fred’s conduct.

The article references that the Open Meeting Law requires individuals who want to make a recording of a meeting notify the chair before doing so. Fred didn’t do that.

Fred says he was in the front row with his arm extended holding his phone, and seems to think that’s close enough to notifying the chair beforehand in accordance with the Open Meeting Law requirements. It isn’t.

The Plymouth Independent then casts doubts about the applicability of the M.G.L. ch. 272 sec. 99, the Massachusetts law that makes it illegal to secretly record audio, to this situation. These doubts are misplaced, and the Plymouth Independent is doing a disservice to its readers in an effort to excuse Fred Thys’ actions.

The statutes reads, in relevant part: “any person who willfully commits an interception… of any wire or oral communication shall be fined not more than ten thousand dollars, or imprisoned in the state prison for not more than five years, or imprisoned in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one half years, or both so fined and given one such imprisonment.” Within the meaning of the statute, an “interception means to secretly hear, secretly record, or aid another to secretly hear or secretly record the contents of any wire or oral communication through the use of any intercepting device by any person other than a person given prior authority by all parties to such communication.” There is nothing in the statute to exempt journalists from its provisions.

A lawyer cited in the PI article claims the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed in a 2011 case, Project Veritas Action Fund v. Rollins, 982 F.3d 813 (2011), that individuals have a First Amendment right to record public officials engaged in public duty in a public space. This is inaccurate. The holding in that case is limited to recording police officers in the performance of their duties in public spaces. If that lawyer had read the entire case, he would see that the First Circuit specifically declined to take up the issue as it applies to all public officials performing their duties in all public spaces.

That same lawyer goes on to claim that because PACTV is already recording the meeting that Fred Thys can also secretly record the meeting without any issues. Again, if that lawyer would read M.G.L. ch. 272 sec. 99 he would find that no such exemption exists.

Journalists have been charged under M.G.L. ch. 272 sec. 99 before. For instance, a journalist from Barstool Sports was charged with violating the statute during a 2019 phone interview with the mayor of Somerville, though the SJC later determined that because the journalist had properly notified the mayor he was recording the interview that no violation of the statute had occurred. But again, Fred Thys did not notify anyone he was recording the meeting on June 11th.

To be fair, I don’t think Fred Thys intended to violate either M.G.L. ch. 272 sec. 99 or the Open Meeting Law when he started to record the June 11th meeting without notifying anyone in attendance. I think he just made a mistake. But instead of owning up to the mistake, the PI has made excuses. Instead of quietly correcting the behavior in the future and moving on, the PI has chosen to use its platform to actively criticize me and absolve themselves. Instead of taking responsibility, the PI has tried to shift blame.

It is regrettable that the Plymouth Independent decided to approach this issue the way it has. One of the services professional journalism provides is to hold public officials accountable. How can the PI hold local officials accountable, including me, if they won’t take responsibility when they are in the wrong themselves? Accountability starts at home. The Plymouth Independent can and should do better.

Kevin Canty

Canty is vice chair of the Plymouth Select Board.

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