WMUA to post podcast of ‘Focus’ discussion about Amherst Town Meeting articles that was silenced Sunday

Last modified: Tuesday, May 05, 2015

AMHERST — Participants and hosts of a long-running public affairs program on the University of Massachusetts radio station say their First Amendment rights were denied when a broadcast was turned off Sunday afternoon over questions about the legality of using state property for potential financial gain.

“At minimum, it’s a violation of free speech,” said Mary Wentworth, a Town Meeting member and one of four panelists invited to offer their opinions on “Focus,” which was hosted by Merrylees “Molly” Turner.

Leo Maley, who also serves as a co-host of the program but who was not in the studio Sunday, said Tuesday that this was an unfortunate response by a UMass official to the demands of an individual.

“The university and the station shouldn’t be in the censorship business,” Maley said.

The decision to terminate the radio station signal during the roundtable discussion about four articles on Amherst’s annual Town Meeting warrant appears to have been made after Town Meeting member Kevin Collins hand-delivered a letter to the radio station that morning demanding that it “cease-and-desist” from broadcasting the show.

The four guests, all elected Town Meeting members, were Wentworth, Claudia Brown, Michael Burkart and TracyLee Boutilier. It was Brown’s participation that raised a concern for Collins, whose letter explained that she would benefit from the broadcast because she is opposed to a zoning change on Butterfield Terrace that might reduce the value of her home.

While the broadcast was not aired live, the “Focus” hosts, WMUA staff and the university have agreed to rectify the situation by recording a new version of the show Tuesday and then posting a podcast of that recording on the WMUA website, Maley said.

This is probably the best solution after an incident of unconstitutional “prior restraint,” said attorney William C. Newman of Northampton, director of the Western Regional Law Office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“The remedy for this censorship is more free speech, and the radio station is implementing that remedy,” Newman said. “It’s clear recognition that the radio station made a mistake.”

But Collins said Tuesday that he never perceived this as a free-speech issue. Instead, he said the issue was about using the equipment and airwaves at UMass.

“I would fight to the death for their right to speak their minds, to express themselves. You just can’t do it for personal financial gain using state property,” Collins said.

Turner, one of the rotating hosts for the past nine years of a program founded in the late 1960s by Ken Mosakowski, said she was aware that Collins had brought the papers and confronted Helen Curtin, who hosts a polka show that precedes “Focus.” But Turner dismissed Collins’ order, saying it was not credible, and said she believed the program would go on.

“I said, ‘There is nothing legal about these papers,’” Turner said.

As is her customary practice, Turner sent an email to other Town Meeting members to alert them about the program, which during Town Meeting season has topics for discussion that will be debated at sessions of the legislative body.

“We talk about the things we want to cover,” Turner said. “We provide the microphone and voice for people who don’t have it, who don’t get heard.”

Newman said it’s obvious that “Focus” is an opinion show and that whoever made the decision to turn off the broadcast signal set a dangerous precedent to deny the forum for community and students.

“One individual in the community cannot and should not exercise a veto over opinion on the airwaves,” Newman said.

In his original letter to the station, Collins wrote: “I do hereby demand that you cease and desist from this illegal broadcast of members of Amherst Town Meeting who have a conflict of interest under the laws of the commonwealth who plan to use state property for personal gain.”

Collins stands by his letter, arguing that it is not a free-speech issue. “If I was worried about the content, I would have brought the matter to the FCC,” Collins said.

The state’s conflict of interest law, though, does not apply to elected members of Town Meeting.

As Turner and her guests went on the air, they began getting calls from listeners who were not able to hear the dialogue. “I don’t know how far we got when we stopped broadcasting,” Turner said.

That was when they learned that someone in the UMass administration had decided in Collins’ favor. Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for UMass, said Monday that he was unaware of the situation but would attempt to determine who in the administration made the decision to shut down the broadcast. However, Blaguszewski did not return further calls Tuesday seeking an explanation.

Wentworth said it is troubling that another Town Meeting member would have such clout.

“They just couldn’t seem to grasp that this cease-and-desist order held no legal standing whatsoever. It was the creation of one individual,” Wentworth said.

Maley said he trusts that both the station and university are supportive of the Constitution and understand a bad decision was made in the heat of the moment, but the blame should be on Collins.

“What happened was unfortunate but caused by the actions of one individual,” Maley said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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