DEDHAM, Mass. — A judge in Norfolk Superior Court said Wednesday that he’ll weigh First Amendment concerns levied by an online blogger and activist facing eight charges of witness intimidation and one count of conspiracy in connection with the Karen Read murder case.
Aidan Kearney, a Massachusetts man who runs the blog “Turtleboy Daily News,” claims that Read had been framed in a coverup over the death of Boston cop John O’Keefe.
Kearney — who livestreams his commentary on the Read case and attends court proceedings — is fighting a stay-away order that prohibits him from direct or indirect contact with 8 people connected to the Read case including the lead State Police investigator and his wife.
The judge pointed out that the no-contact order does have some ambiguity: “It didn’t articulate a distance from those individuals, which creates an ambiguity for Mr. Kearney about what he can and can’t do or where he can and can’t go when those individuals are in the vicinity.”
“That seems to be an ambiguity that does limit what he can do and seems like something the court should correct,” the judge said.
The judge noted that Kearney may have legitimate First Amendment questions.
“One can talk about the tone, one can talk about the content,” he said. “But clearly he is reporting on matters of public interest.”
Special prosecutor Kenneth Mello agreed Wednesday to the court making an exception to allow Kearney to attend court proceedings.
Mello also agreed to add a section to the stay-away order saying Kearney has to stay 500 feet away from witnesses.
The judge said: “500 feet is a distance that frankly, I have never seen a court set. It’s a pretty long distance.”
Mello replied: “I’ll grant you, Judge, that is subjective, but it seems to be reasonable.”
Mello argued that First Amendment protections don’t mean people can harass and intimidate witnesses — even if they claim they’re a journalist.
“The representation that this is stifling to journalism is not carrying any weight, your Honor,” Mello said.
Special prosecutor Mello said Kearney’s intimidation of witnesses includes harassing them in front of their homes, at sports games, and at their places of business.
“You cannot hide behind the shield of a journalist to break the law,” Mello said.
He said Kearney has asked his followers to post on the websites of witnesses’ employers: “clearly intending to cause some economic harm to that witness and jeopardize her job.”
Mello called it a clear-cut case of witness intimidation: “The general court clearly intended to prohibit someone from attending the sports games of children of witnesses in cases. It clearly intended to prohibit an individual from chasing a state trooper across the street outside of this court with a bullhorn.”
He said the blogger has also urged his online followers to order food from a restaurant where a witness works — and never pick them up.
Special prosecutor Mello said Kearney has also warned witnesses that: “Life as you know it has changed. You won’t be able to go anywhere without being photographed and followed. We know where you’ve been.”
Kearney’s lawyer, Tim Bradl, defended his client, saying he’s indeed protected by the First Amendment.
The lawyer says that prosecutors have failed to make their case that Kearney’s conduct amounts to witness intimidation.
Bradl claims that Kearney is a journalist who is free to satirize witnesses in the case.
“There was no attempt to threaten or violate the intimidation statute by satirizing the witness’ own statements back to him,” his lawyer said.
Bradl says journalists often incidentally record a person’s home if they approach a house while filming.
The judge pointed out that willfully threatening witnesses or causing emotional injury is also part of the witness intimidation law and asking online followers to order but never pick up food from a witness’s restaurant employee amounts to economic and potentially emotional injury.
“That is not reporting, that is advocacy,” the judge said. “That is encouraging people to do something to another party’s economic disadvantage.”
The judge asked if Kearney’s lawyer was arguing that he didn’t attempt to cause economic or emotional injury.
Bradl said the First Amendment protects people’s rights to hold boycotts, for example.
The judge asked if there have been constitutional cases looking at whether individuals can threaten economic injury to a witness.
Kearney’s lawyer said no and that he wants the courts to look at the question: “I hope it doesn’t have to go to Boston or Washington, D.C.”
The judge said he’ll take the matter under advisement, and said it’ll take him “a little while” to review new filings that Bradl’s set to provide.
“I’ll get whatever I get tomorrow, and you get a ruling from me,” the judge said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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