WJFF: Community Radio’s Future


(This article derives, in part, from a September 23, 2009  WJFF Board of Trustees  meeting.   Under normal circumstances, it would have been  published  within 24 hours of the meeting.  Instead,  for  four days, I’ve fretted and edited.

WJFF  has touched each of us whether we know it or not.  Its in-depth interviews of local, national and international activists have broadened and influenced our local  debates about  casinos, dams,  flooding and the advent of hydraulic fracturing.  During the lead up to the Iraq Invasion,  while  other journalists cheered  the fear mongers,  we  listened to WJFF   and heard  85 year old  Robert Byrd  lead the filibuster against granting the President preemptive war powers.  In a shaky voice,  he outlined  the Constitutional limits of Presidential power and Congress’ obligations.  We had no doubt  the moment was historic and potent.

But WJFF’s contributions have  been individual and personal as well.  The kids, including my youngest son, who participated in The Station’s  Youth Radio Project will never forget the safe haven where their creative juices could erupt in wonderful and often unpredictable ways.

It has been, quite simply, an integral part of our evolution as a region.)

*    *    *    *    *

“In 1986, WJFF founders Malcolm Brown and Anne Larsen put an ad in some of the newspapers around Jeffersonville.  It asked if there were folks in the area that were interested in having a public radio station, and if so, would they come  to a meeting about it at the Lake Jefferson Hotel.  This was the beginning of WJFF.   Station lore has the number of people who came to that initial meeting growing and growing.  (It’s up to over a hundred by now) but in actuality, somewhere between 40 and 50 people arrived at the Lake Jefferson Hotel that first night.  But hundreds of community members were involved from that day forward in getting  the station on the air February 12, 1990….”  (WJFF  “Soundings”  newsletter, 2005 retrospective.)

Twenty-three years later, on September 17, 2009, the following  email was forwarded  by a friend who has no  station-affiliation, “There have been internal issues that the volunteers, the Community Advisory Board (CAB) and Board of Trustees  (BOT) of our community radio Station, WJFF, have not been able to iron out.”  The writer then asked community supporters of  WJFF to attend the Board of Trustee’s meeting on September 23rd.

Regular listeners of WJFF  knew that Walter Keller,  host of  First Class Classicals (one of the station’s longest running shows)  and his production assistant,  Bill Jumper, had been either “fired,”  “suspended,” or  “dismissed”  after their August 29, 2009 show.  (In fact,  Mr.  Jumper resigned.)

In a letter to Community Advisory Board (CAB) member, Matt Frumess,  WJFF’s Board of Trustees President, Steve Van Benschoten wrote,   “…the two volunteers had “[violated] one of the cardinal rules of the station.  On page 9 of the volunteer manual,” he stated,  “you will find this injunciton:  ‘Volunteers may not use WJFF airwaves, events, listserve or links to discuss station politics.’   The rule is there to prevent an on-air person from using their program as a bully pulpit to present their case…. We simply can’t have this.  That is why they were suspended.”

Furthermore, Mr. Van Benschoten explained,  Walter and Bill had  run afoul of  WJFF-procedure,  “We have a process in place at the station for grievances to be mediated.  If a programmer feels that the Program Committee is wrong in their assessment of his  or her performance, they can take the matter up with the Board of Trustees (BOT), bringing supporters and arguments to bear on their side of the isue.  Instead, Walter and Bill chose to seize an opportunity on-air, in violation of station rules, to thumb their noses at the procedures WJFF has set in place to establish a rule of fairness and justice.  We simply can’t have this.  That is why they were suspended.”

(Breathing note:  Not only is the Program Committee appointed by the BOT, but   WJFF’s new 2008  “conflict resolution policy”  describes  the grievance process  somewhat differently,  “Volunteers who feel they have been treated unfairly in mediated dispute or who feel unjustly accused of violation of WJFF regulations may present their case to the Board of Trustees provided that…They submit their argument in writing to the Board of Trustees.  The Board may or may not decide to hear from the complainant or complainants in person.“)  (I was unable to find this document online for linking purposes.)

During the Board of Trustees meeting on September 23, 2009 and in subsequent emails, several volunteers disputed Mr. Van Benschoten’s   contention that a  forum exists where  the public, volunteers and station management can openly discuss their differences. Others  expressed a need for change in the way Trustees,  the Station Manager and members of the various boards are selected or appointed.  “It’s in-grown and self-perpetuating,”  one volunteer said and several echoed.

According to the station’s by-laws, most members of  The Board of Trustees are appointed by currently-serving Trustees and  no more than three Trustees are elected  by the active volunteers at the station.

Further,  The Board of Trustees determines the number of Trustee vacancies to be filled during any given election  cycle, appoints members to standing committees, approves  the Community Advisory Board and hires  the Station Manager.

“I don’t know what we can do,” wrote one volunteer after the  BOT  meeting where  she was not afforded an opportunity to speak.  “I want to try and work through the differences in a diplomatic fashion, but we are not even being allowed a forum…can’t talk on the list serve, can’t talk via email….  It’s a scary situation….Winston [Station Manager] and Steve can argue that we were there to discuss a ‘personnel’ issue (which isn’t always open to discussion), but they both knew through my emails that I had other concerns – lack of communication, lack of leadership, the feel of the station changing etc.  Walter and Bill are the underlying symptom of a much deeper problem….I do know that there are people who have stopped listening.   This is not due to the Walter/Bill issue but the fact that we are sounding too homogenized – where are all the community voices?”

*   *   *   *   *

So what did Walter and Bill  say on-air during First Class Classicals  that simply could not be borne by station management?

Walter led off  by referring to a recent change he’d made in deference to the Programming Committee:    “We don’t have the international weather.”

Bill Jumper:  We’re going to change a lot of things at First Class Classicals because this program has come under some pretty serious criticism from the WJFF Programming Committee.   They are saying that the paramount concern is  the audience so what we would like to do is ask our listeners out there… to ask you to let us know what you think of the aspects of the program as we’ve been doing it.  And, if we have some  good reports  for the programming committee  we would like to have  some of those to do…  otherwise  you’ll  see some probably pretty signifcant changes here at  First Class Classicals  here on WJFF.

Walter:  Thanks, Bill.

Bill Jumper:  Please participate. Please send in your cards and letters.  Please call the station and let them know what you think of  First Class Classicals.

Walter:  Thank you, Bill.   What is the number  on the voice box for people to call?

Bill Jumper:    There is no  voicebox anymore.

Walter:  Oh.  There’s no more voicebox?  (Gives WJFF’s  phone and address information.)

Walter:   I will say this… that each of us individually and collectively  have  had very positive feedback  about how the show begins.

Bill Jumper:  We have had some but  we just need more of our listeners to participate.  To let the station manager know what you think about this program.  Because you are  our first concern.   It’s why we are all here.  We aren’t doing this for the station manager or the  programming committee, so please give us a response and let us know if we’re pleasing you.  If we’re not, by all means we will change anything you’d like us to change   This program has been singled out for some very severe criticism, in my opinion by the program committee.

Walter:  I will second that…

Then, at the top of the next hour,  Bill  said,  “We just wanted to remind you that we need your support.  We’ve received some information from the Programming Committee that they want to substantially change some of the thngs we do here at First Class Classicals.  And so we would like your input and, as is true of us too,   the paramount concern is you the listeners  so please give us your support.  (Provides station contact information.)

(Breathing note:  During fund drives, this kind of conversation occurs on  most of  The Station’s on-air shows.  In the midst of  WAMC  fund drives,  personnel frequently allude to  bean-counters, program decisions  and hatchets,  “So now’s the time, if you want to keep this program,  you have to step up,”  or words to that effect.)

*   *   *   *   *

In  response to Walter’s  suspension and Bill Jumper’s resignation,  CAB member, Matt Frumess wrote,  “At the last regular CAB meeting…,  Walter Keller read a directive from the Programming committee… [which] included… some specific things involving the content of his show.  These things included shortening his international  weather segment and instructions to begin playing music as soon  as the local weather was done.  Frankly, Walter was less perturbed by these items than were many members of our board.

“The meeting ended after several of us expressed our concern about the station management micro-managing our station’s shows and, in general, meddling with the content of ongoing shows….All of us who listened to Bill’s short requests were surprised by  how innocuous they were.  We had all expected to hear some sort of tirade….By this time, word had gotten out that Walter’s show had been cancelled and emails and listserve entries hit the fan;  nearly all respondents were appalled by the heavy-handed behavior of the station management.”

Mr.  Frumess then laid out  four conclusions reached  unanimously by  the CAB:

  • “that Walter and Bill be reinstated immediately…  We feel that….there was nothing said that was so egregious that it should have elicited the immediate and inappropriate reaction it did.
  • that  given the extraordinary contributions made to the station by both Walter and Bill, the heavy-handed manner in which they were treated sends a dangerous message to all the current and prospective  volunteers at the station… As the CAB, representing a devoted listening audience, we expect the station management to maintain its community orientation and ts commitment to diversity, free speech and fair play
  • globally, that the recent behavior of the station management is being seen as a threat…to the integrity of WJFF as we know it….diversity requires freedom for  programmers and staff to express themselves as they see fit…unless they stray dramatically from the shows original proposed content or violate the law or specific station standards…
  • that the removal of the voicebox call-in line was inadvisable and should be restored.  The station needs a safe harbor mechanism for listeners to call….With our  mission to  serve a broad-based community, we need any source of feedback we can get.”

(Breathing note:  Walter Keller and BOT President, Steve Van Benschoten both attended the CAB meeting described here by Mr. Frumess.  Mr. Van Benschoten  was  aware that  Walter had  agreed to the Programming Committee’s recommendations and had begun to implement  them.  Nonetheless  —  and without making his intention clear at the CAB meeting  —   the Station Manager was directed to call Walter the next morning  and inform him [after nearly 20 years on  air] “that he and Bill Jumper were indefinitely suspended for violating station policy.”)

*   *   *   *   *

In a letter written after the September 23rd  BOT meeting where Walter’s suspension was discussed in Executive Session,  Mr. Van Benschoten wrote,  “I’m pleased to announce that the Board of Trustees’ voted to reinstate Walter Keller to the airwaves and that Walter has agreed to the conditions… I also want to inform the volunteers that the Board of Trustees has accepted Bill Jumper’s verbal resignation from the station, and (as he requested) a written acceptance of his resignation has been sent to his home.  There were many issues that were left unsaid and unanswered at the Sept. 23rd meeting due to the time limits unexpectedly imposed by the Jeffersonville Library.  At our next meeting, most likely in the Village Hall adjacent to the library, we hope to have much more time to hear from all who attend.  There were many issues that were left unsaid and unanswered at the Sept. 23rd meeting due to the time limits unexpectedly imposed by the Jeffersonville Library.  At our next meeting, most likely in the Village Hall adjacent to the library, we hope to have much more time to hear from all who attend.”  (Breathing note:  If you want to receive  meeting notices, you can sign up for the WJFF newsletter.)

*   *   *   *   *

Breathing opinion:  WJFF  must be cherished  as a valuable community resource.  Its capacity for a full-breadth of discussions  cannot be lost to us in a time when its service area faces the challenges of hydraulic fracturing,  multiple casino developments, increased job losses  and failing revenue streams.  It would be helpful to have WJFF’s alphabet soup of  committees,   volunteers and  concerned members of the public convene  in “town hall”   venues throughout the listening area.  The community of current listeners, those who’ve drifted away and those who haven’t  found 90.5  yet, must be given an opportunity to  help formulate the way forward.

Hopefully, the  currently in-grown system which has

  • Trustees appointing themselves and standing committee members
  • approving CAB’s members and chairperson  while also
  • hiring and tactically directing the duties of  the Station Manager

will be replaced by a  more inclusive,  elective process.

Since its inception, WJFF has reflected  the rough-hewn, down-to-earth flavor of  the village streets and sharp winters where it lives.   Despite some of those villages being more gentrified   than they were twenty three years ago, we’ve  learned through hard times that no set of hands is less than another and that all voices and visions must be actively sought.  Otherwise, we face a future  scored  by the divisiveness of  “them and us.”  Given WJFF’s legacy to us — that  a strong community can build anything it conceives —  such an outcome would be a terrible waste.

As would forgetting this phrase from WJFF’s  Mission Statement,  “Radio Catskill… aims to involve the community in preserving and transmitting its own cultural heritage and artistic expressions….”

To paraphrase a question raised by one volunteer after the  BOT meeting was cut short, “How does replacing  Walter’s homegrown First Class Classicals with  a canned program sponsored by British Petroleum (BP) involve or preserve the   ‘community’?”    We’re a  (*%@$%*^@!)-ing hydro-powered radio station!”

A highly-charged debate about hydraulic fracturing is taking place in WJFF’s listening community. British Petroleum will receive 32.5% of  revenues generated by Chesapeake hydraulically fracturing the Marcellus Shale.  For the BOT or Programming Committee to say, “You can’t blame us; canned programs come with sponsorship embedded,”  is, politely-speaking, insufficient.  Please see an earlier Breathing article, “Tom Paxton’s  We Didn’t Know.”

Light Up The Delaware River: Wrap-Up


(Addendum to “Gas Drilling Reps  Grilled in Sullivan County.”   Feeling out of the loop?  Didn’t know about  the meeting in Rock Hill?  Don’t feel bad. Supervisors James Scheutzow and Linda Babicz were there and they  echoed a pervasive complaint from other attendees about how  little advertising preceded the meeting, “We have flooding problems. We have revenue questions.  We need to know what’s going on.”)

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On September 6, 2009, the afternoon of The Light Up The Delaware River Party, a few of us were  watching the Big Eddy Regatta from the Narrowsburg Bridge.  We had Martin Springetti’s “Don’t Frak/Drain Our River” posters and were taking a break from showing them off to passing cars.

“Has anyone heard from  Hancock?”   Nope.

“Philadelphia?”  I shook my head.   “No cell service.”

I scooted into the Cafe bathroom to hold my head;  nobody else needed to know  I was  flipping out. What had I done?  What was I thinking?  How could I hang us all so far out on a limb and not even know whether people were actually gathering in our other river towns?  “This is why my children warn strangers about me,”  I thought.

Before our Granny-something road trip, Leni and I were brand new friends.  We’d known of each other for years, but before we climbed into the car and headed for Philadelphia, we’d  spent very little time in one another’s company.  How deluded were we  to spend three days in a car  —  on a mission  akin to searching for Shangrila — trying to speak with people who  knew little or nothing about hydraulic fracturing  — to invite  them to a 330-mile River Basin Party?

The bathroom walls were closing in.  I couldn’t breathe.

It was very like the night before we  left for Philadelphia.   I’d  sent a desperate plea  from Breathing: we needed a  Light Up The Delaware River Party  website or else the  people we met along the road wouldn’t  take us seriously.  Panic had started to set  in.

The next morning, as we headed out the door,  Tanyette Colon emailed to say she’d just sent the new  Light Up The Delaware River site live.  I was speechless.  Our few conversations had  been via email and yet,  she’d  worked into the wee hours  for the sake of an idea.

Leni and I had a silent agreement not to  think or talk much about the things that could go wrong.  We didn’t worry about disappearing like Amelia Earhart.  We didn’t think about people slamming doors in our faces.  We were leaping into a great well of faith:   people would understand  the threat  of hydraulic fracturing and our urgency  if we could just look them in the eye.

For the sake of an idea,  Mark Barbash invited us  — two complete strangers — into his home and drove us all over Philadelphia.   Nancy Janyszeski opened her study (a thoroughly impressive  place, btw) and showed us that The Party was already displayed prominently at Nockamixon.us. When Leni & I returned from a fracking pond site,  Nancy  and her husband gave us towels,  sent us off to use their bathroom and invited us to spend the night.

When there were no motel rooms from Matamoras, PA to BethelWoods because it was the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock,  three bikers invited us to share their room when they learned what we were doing.  (Although we didn’t take them up on their generosity, it warmed our hearts and thirty  years earlier neither of us would have hesitated.)

It was like that the entire 330 miles:  people read the invitation,  snatched the idea and began hatching plans for Parties in their towns.  When we got home,  our inboxes were  filled with plans  from Nockamixon to Damascus.

The next  three days were spent hunched over the computer searching for national, state and local environmental groups and harvesting email addresses.  By the end, over 200 groups and many more individuals knew The Delaware River Basin was on the move.

Fred Pecora — who’s spent the last two years writing letters, doing interviews and researching, researching, researching  —  heard Leni on WJFF and called  WBAI so the Party and its message  could start percolating  in New York City.

Emails arrived  from the Wyoming front lines.  They were watching and hoping.  Some of my high school buddies  near fracking sites in Ohio taped the WBAI interview  and cheered us on.

In the Upper Basin,  the  media was told to meet us  in Narrowsburg.  It wasn’t until the afternoon  of  the Party that I  realized nobody had organized a  Light Up  event  in Narrowsburg.  At 6:45 pm,  fifteen minutes before we were to begin pouring water into the River,  Bernie  Handler* wondered if we had any.  OMG!  Only a very few people  would be able to negotiate the steep bank from the Gazebo to the River.  All I could think as I grabbed containers and headed down over the rocks was,  “Please don’t let me fall in!”

Moments later, none of it  mattered.  Nearly 300 people had arrived.   Janet Burgan’s  rich,  sure anthems blended with  the dusk and as we munched Dan Brinkerhof’s old-fashioned popcorn,  Skip Mendler juggled and made us laugh.

Below us, the River darkened  and at 7:00, we poured our borrowed water back into it.  At 7:30, as a few small  boats lit up, candles  were set out along the Bridge.   The light  spread in an oval to the crowd around the Gazebo  and to the boatmen beyond.   (Later that evening, as  photos and stories began to arrive via email, we learned it had spread from Starlight, PA to Hancock,  Fremont, Long Eddy, Equinunk,  Callicoon,  Damascus-Cochecton, Milanville, Narrowsburg, Pond Eddy, Milford-Shohola,   Washington’s Crossing, Bridgetown,  Dunfield Creek and Philadelphia.

In the sky above us, Dan Desmond piloted his plane with Ted Waddell in the passenger seat snapping photo after photo —  recording a  single moment in the 400 million-year history of the River.

Along with the pictures, have come words, some of which I’ve included here:

From Nyssa Calkin –  Light Up’s Roving Photographer: “I came across some private and semi-private parties in the Equinunk and Long Eddy areas.    At one location… The entire group broke out into spur of the moment River songs.  Very moving.  Most of the images I took were of the bustling river life throughout the day.”

From Washington’s Crossing: “Wanted you to know we were there with our ‘pure water’  and lights on the NJ side…. My dog likes to clean branches out of the water, or maybe he thinks he is saving them from drowning.  Anyway, he did it while we had our candles lit.  He always tosses his head, though, so we got splattered with mud.  Pretty funny.”

From the Narrowsburg Regatta: “We read poetry, held a regatta, carried signs, barbecued, sang songs, saw puppets, poured water, lit candles, ate popcorn, watched movies…!”

From Hancock: Just wanted to let you know our party was quite successful — except we never saw the plane!  (Editor’s Note:  This was entirely my fault and something that needs much better planning for the 2nd Annual Light Up The Delaware River Party!)

We had between 50 and 60 people…and we did connect with the campers who had posted the other Hancock event.  They joined us,  and at the appropriate hour floated their beautiful, candle-carrying minature rafts from our candle-lit beach.

Thank you so much for all your efforts in creating this! The river was incredibly serene and gorgeous at dusk as we poured our cups of water and lit our candles. Laurie  of the CDOG (Chenango-Delaware-Otsego Gas) group spoke eloquently about the river and our mission to preserve water and land.  Lisa, an organic farmer, activist and poet, read two of her own poems inspired by the gas drilling threat.

We were thrilled that quite a few townspeople who had seen notices about the party joined those of us who are already committed.  We enjoyed live music…and recorded music…and lots of conversation and information sharing (even dancing!!).  It was a fun, inspiring occasion, and I think we all left feeling more connected to the river, one another, and our intentions to preserve the beauty and health of our environment.   How did the other parties go?

From Matamoras: I was at a private party earlier on Sunday just up the River in Matamoras and I will try to get some photos from that.

It would certainly be great to make this an annual event on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend sort of a Delaware River Appreciation Day (DRAD) something I believe would receive much support up and down the River. A little appreciation for all the River provides, including a source of clean drinking water and the many recreational opportunities from its source to the bay.

Great job by everyone…the River Thanks You All!

************

As I stared from the Bridge into  the heart of it all —   inexpressible joy mixed with sorrow.

Only a part of my community had come  to the River.  The farmers  I’d worked beside  were absent.  They’d sold their cows and land  or been foreclosed years before — but there are memories that bind people forever:  pulling a calf from a straining cow in a warm barn as a spring snowstorm howls outside;  the sound of a tractor rolling backward down a  hill and pinning a man beneath it;  the calluses at the base of our fingers from tossing bales and hauling shingles and sheetrock.

Many of  the people I’ve worked beside didn’t  come  to The Party  because they’ve already moved  from the  land their families tilled for a century or more.  Some were absent because,  after long weeks of painful weighing, they’d signed leases.  They weren’t sure if the Party was for them, too.  Some weren’t with us because they’re angry at us — believing that our defense of the River signifies  a willful disregard for what  gentrification, the economic downturn,  factory farms and the loss of industrial jobs have done to them and their children.  Some believe that our stance  as defenders of the  water and land is a denigration of  their long years of stewardship.

Every ten years or so during the thirty that  I’ve lived in Sullivan County, NY,  a wave of “newcomers” has arrived  in the Basin  because something  feels  “wrong”  or  “out-of balance”  in their lives.  Some  of them weather the storms and stay.  Many maintain two residences.  Too often  —  to the jaded eye of those who’ve  seen it all before and who struggle to pay one mortgage or rent — those second homes look like  get-away options in case things go sour.  Too often to recount,  many newcomers discover how  hard it is to live here…to raise a family here…to pay the mortgage here…. and after   they’ve  used their greater resources to rent Main Street shops and  charge prices many “locals”  can’t afford,  they  move away.  Those  whose families have worked and lived in the Basin for  centuries and who  rarely have a wealth of choices,  watch them go,  their communities upended in the wake.

But what of  those,  like myself,  who’ve  stayed?  They were all around me on the Bridge or chatting  in front of Dan Brinkerhoff’s Amazing Mobile Movie Theater Truck  waiting for the film to begin.  I saw farmers who work dawn to midnight creating community sustainable agriculture and  librarians who supervise after-school programs.  There were teachers who share their skills in our literacy centers and community programs, carpenters, artists, weavers & spinners, labor organizers,  shopkeepers, nurses, writers, construction workers, house cleaners  —  all of them working with every fiber to stay;  to lend their vigor to an old world and its traditions.

Just as some old-timers  fear that  gentrification will leave them behind,   their neighbors who  gathered along the River from Hancock to Philadelphia also fear abandonment. They watch the River through exhausted, angry and frightened eyes and  see   the specter of  gas companies descending like  locusts, despoiling our Basin and leaving us to clean up or give up.

No matter on which side of the issue we stand,  it’s not enough to say, “You can’t talk to those people.  They’re selfish/greedy/arrogant/ignorant/dilettantes.”  How does it benefit the River for us to squabble over who the “true stewards of the land”  are  —  especially when livelihoods, college educations, farms & family  businesses, land  and water are all at stake?   To paraphrase the President,   diplomacy isn’t for people who agree with each other;  it’s for those  locked in conflict.

Those of us who’ve been here long enough, remember the hate-filled  words that led to acts of violence  during the  NPS war and the twenty year embroglio over  school consolidation.  Perhaps the vile odors  of a house and barn burning  have left us unreasonably anxious  when  the same ugly words and frustrated rage surface  today.

Or perhaps, we’re struggling to learn from our past.

We hear  that a movie’s being planned  about the gas strife here in the Basin.  Let’s give them a truly different story to tell — one in which we find ways to preserve the things we love in common.

Incredible  amounts of good have come from the Party already.  A friend who just signed a lease has asked that we join forces to support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act and a severance tax on the gas industry. As I mentioned yesterday,  a column will always be available to her here at Breathing. (More on that after September 20th.)  River communities throughout the Basin have renewed our joint commitment to preserve and protect and we are in daily contact.  Several people who saw Josh Fox’  film, “Water Under Attack,”  were in Rock Hill two days later demanding answers of  gas drilling representatives  (IOGA-NY).  Efforts are being renewed to create a national database of groups engaged in struggles akin to our own.  Ideas for internet videos  and guerilla theater are free-floating everywhere.  Meetings are being held by phone and  over the internet to discuss a possible Basin summit.  And integral to everything is this question,  “How do we save the Basin for all of us?”

*********

*I’ve already nominated Bernie Handler for The Prince Valiant-Iron Man  Award.  Not only did he save me from looking  like a total ditz, he also rescued Kalika and her  kayak during the afternoon  Regatta.)

*********

Note to readers:  Breathing Is Political, CottageWorks and Light Up The Delaware River Party! locked me in a family meeting last night.  They kept their promise to let me plan The Light Up  Party without nagging,  but now they need me to find a job.  So for their sake, and mine,  if you know  of a community-vested enterprise that’s  looking for a nurse-paralegal with a writing demon and native  organizing skills enhanced by sheer dumb luck, please let me know.

Best hopes for us all,

Liz

Blogger Gagged


On May 29, 2009,  the 79th District Court of Jim Wells County, Texas  released its decision in Coronado Energy  E&P Company, L.L.C. v. McGill Ranch, Ltd.,  Stephen Burns and Elizabeth Burns; Cause No. 08-06-47106-CV. (This link will take you to the blog which has several links to documents.)

According to the Court’s papers,  Plaintiff   Coronado alleged that Ms. Burns,  based on her previous actions, is likely to publish “proprietary”  information  about Coronado’s practices if she isn’t stopped.  Coronado further  alleged that Ms. Burns has published confidential  documents provided to her during the legal discovery process.

On December 3, 2008, Plaintiff Coronado Energy requested, and  the Court signed, a Protective Order which was entered  against Ms. Elizabeth Burns who publishes the blog,  “A Satirical View from the McGill Bros Lease in South Texas.”  The Court evidently agreed with Coronado’s  wish  “to protect Coronado’s  proprietary and trade secret related or type information that will or may be revealed through the course of depositions and other discovery in this matter.  Such order will allow all  parties in this case to designate certain discovery  products as confidential and thereby limit disclosure and use of such information outside of this lawsuit…”

Under normal circumstances, such confidential designations are frequently made in civil suits.  However, under normal circumstances,  the party wishing to designate documents as “confidential”  does not do so in the aggregate and provides specific reasons for each instance.  The concern in this case is that the burden  of proof has been  shifted to Ms. Burns,  who, if she wants to publish Coronado documents, must show, apparently,  that such documents should not be designated “confidential.”  By placing the burden on Ms. Burns,  the Court has effectively ruled that  she must return to the  Court for permission whenever she wishes to publish  Coronado documents

During our 330-mile River Trip to light up the Delaware River,  Leni and I discovered that very few people in our River Basin had ever heard of  hydraulic fracturing and even fewer knew what it was.

The burden of educating the public about what the gas companies plan for our communities has fallen, in large part, to bloggers.  Although there are notable exceptions  (The River Reporter and  The Intelligencer, to name just two)  the understanding most people have regarding the issues  comes from watching a virtual deluge of pro-drilling ads on their TVs.

The U.S. Supreme Court said in New York Times v. United States (1971)  “The United States, which brought these actions to enjoin publication in the New York Times and in the Washington Post of certain classified material, has not met the “‘heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement of such a [prior] restraint.'”

(“Prior restraint” refers to  restrictions placed on  a citizen’s rights in case the citizen  might overstep legal bounds at some future time.  The Supreme Court was reminding us that  if the State seeks to restrict a person’s  speech,  the burden on the State is enormous.  In so saying,  The Court was reminding us that  our nation is only as strong as our sources of information,  our ability to access that information and the  open fora in which we discuss that information.)

In one of the most brilliant and moving opinions ever published by the Court, Justice Black wrote, in part, with Justice Douglas concurring:

“In my view it is unfortunate that some of my Brethren are apparently willing to hold that the publication of news may sometimes be enjoined. Such a holding would make a shambles of the First Amendment.

‘Our Government was launched in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, followed in 1791. Now, for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says, but rather means that the Government can halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country.

“James Madison offered a series of amendments to satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe and beyond the power of government to abridge. Madison proposed what later became the First Amendment in three parts, two of which are set out below, and one of which proclaimed: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” 2 (Emphasis added.)

“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

I am not an attorney and  would not presume to voice an opinion on either Coronado’s allegations or Ms. Burns’ response, but I  hope that all of us — bloggers, the populace,  mainstream media and Courts of Law —  will read and re-read Justice Black’s statement.  Although it  concerns restraints placed on citizens by  The State,  in our current oligarchy where  The State and Corporations are enmeshed,  Justice Black’s words ring with  deep import.