Local journalist and blogger Dan Valenti read a 17-page affadavit in court rebutting the harassment order against him.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — An order restraining local blogger Daniel Valenti from commenting on a highly publicized pedestrian accident was vacated Monday afternoon following a lengthy hearing in Central Berkshire District Court.
Valenti and his attorneys said it was a victory for the 1st Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press.
“I’m pleased that the court heard our arguments that in no way should this be allowed,” said Valenti, who operates PlanetValenti.com. “I feel I was standing up for every person who writes.”
The case has been picked up on the Internet by a number of free-speech bloggers and lawyers. William C. Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts legal office for the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a brief on Valenti’s behalf.
Meredith Nilan, who was cited for negligent operation of a motor vehicle in connection with the December 2011 accident, obtained the harassment prevention order on June 27 that required Valenti to remove references about her from his blog, stay 100 yards away from her and refrain from any contact.
Valenti complied with the order, removing all posts relating to her and to the accident, which seriously injured 46-year-old Peter Moore.
Judge Mark D. Mason said Valenti’s writings and comments on the blog didn’t rise to the level of threats under Massachusetts’ harassment law, including that “no ‘fighting words’ were produced in evidence.”
Valenti said he would likely write about the case later and would determine whether to restore the redacted posts to his site. The Nilan family did not wish to comment on if they would take further legal action.
Nilan said in court that because her father is chief probation officer at Superior Court, Valenti was using her as the face of the justice system and the so-called “good old boys” network that he claims are corrupted.
The Stockbridge resident has focused on aspects of the case, including on Nilan’s actions before and after, and sharply questioned the legal procedures. Nilan has said she spent 45 minutes at the scene trying to determine what she hit but Moore had walked home and the police, when alerted, went to the wrong address. She admitted to negligent driving; a charge of leaving the scene was dismissed.
Valenti’s postings went over the line and were not factual, were defamatory and had incited others toward violence, Nilan said.
“I’m not here to argue free speech. I’m here for my personal safety,” Nilan told Mason prior to reading her statement.
Reading clips from his site, both his writing and comments made from readers, Nilan said Valenti’s language made her fearful of violent acts.
She said the postings were “never about journalism” but rather a way for Valenti to both increase the number of hits on his blog and to “show how important his is.”
Since the accident, she has had to change her phone number multiple times after receiving threatening phone calls from who she believes are Valenti readers. (Las Vegas resident Trevor J. Moore, no relation to the accident victim, has been charged with making threatening phone calls to her.) She particularly pointed to a reference by Valenti that some people should be “put down” like animals.
Meredith Nilan stated Valenti’s writings caused her constant distress because of ‘his vicious lies.’
She said she had to change where she parks at work because the route she walks to the office was printed on the site and that she is afraid to leave her house alone. She had become fearful after Valenti published her address, made references to obtaining her phone records and posted photos of the motor vehicle from the accident that made her believe that he had accessed the family’s property.
“I never go anywhere alone,” Nilan said, adding later that “Mr. Valenti made it clear that he knew where I was and printed that information.”
Valenti said that what Nilan called lies and innuendo, “I call fair comment.”
He said he had never met Nilan, contacted her nor entered her place of work, nor did he know the man who threatened her. The photos had been provided by Peter Moore’s father, he said. Valenti said his purpose was to provide the public with an alternative source of news, a place to discuss public incidents and be a voice for the people, especially victims like Moore.
In response to questioning, Valenti said he monitored comments on his blog and had deleted some he felt were over the line. The reference to having certain people “put down” was “journalistic hyperbole,” he said.
His attorneys argued that the harassment order didn’t hold up under Mass. Gen. L. c. 258E, which requires at least three incidents of “willful and malicious acts” intended cause fear of or physical violence to person or property, was prior restraint in prohibiting Valenti from writing about anything related to Nilan in the future, including his own appearance in court that day, and a violation of his Constitutional rights.
Preventing journalists and media from reporting about incidents that put people in an “unfavorable light” would have a chilling effect, said attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo III, who referenced the Zimmerman/Martin case in Florida as an example.
“[George] Zimmerman cannot request a restraining order against the media,” he said, even though Zimmerman has received death threats because of news coverage.
Mason agreed and vacated the harassment order effective immediately but cautioned Valenti that “you walked a very, very fine line” with the “put down” comment. He declined Del Gallo’s request for a written opinion so this “would not happen to another newspaper or another blogger,” saying it was not necessary and was not the role of the district court.