Publication sparks uproar
A rogue, homemade publication has bedeviled town officials, prompting questions about free speech rights and a series of public accusations of who is behind the staple-bound booklets distributed under the title “News as Viewed from A Crow’s Nest.”
On Tuesday night, the Town Council unanimously approved a statement denouncing the publication, but Town Council Chairman Jim Cassida said that conflicting legal opinions leave the town with no clear guidelines on whether the publication can be removed from town offices.
"Before we say what can or can’t be distributed, we’re asking to fully review our legal obligations," Cassida said.
For now, Cassida said, “there are no restrictions.”
Acknowledging a Nov. 23 opinion from the Maine Attorney General’s Office made at the request of Freeport’s police chief, Gerald Schofield, the statement approved Tuesday states that “although the publication may be a protected expression of the author(s) right to free speech, it is also within the Town Council’s purview to express this strong belief that expressions of this nature are inappropriate, hateful, and harmful to the process of public civil discourse.”
Schofield sent a copy of the publication’s “Election Special” to the office of the state’s top legal authority for an opinion on whether its content qualifies as a “direct” threat against certain town officials and staff, which would make it legal to remove from town offices under the Maine Civil Rights Act.
The Nov. 23 letter from the Attorney General’s Investigation Division found that the publication “is doing nothing more than engaging in First Amendment speech.”
“For the content of the newsletter to be actionable,” investigator Margie Berkovich wrote, “it would have to contain a ‘ direct’ threat against a specific individual.”
Cassida said that the town hopes to conclude its legal research into the matter in January.
Since the reappearance of the publication with its “Election Special” in early November, Town Manager Dale Olmstead said 11 or 12 editions have made their way to the foyer in the town office, though he does not know by what hands.
With the current arrangement of the town office, Olmstead’s assistant Judy Hawley said that there is no town staff in view of the foyer. She said Wednesday that she has also not seen who is dropping off the publication.
The council statement approved Tuesday indicates that the publication first appeared around 25 years ago and that the “author(s) of the publication remain unknown or at least unverified.”
But a lack of evidence on hand as to who the real author is did not stop public accusations from flying Tuesday and at a meeting Dec. 6.
On Tuesday, resident Peter Thompson took the podium and accused Olmstead of feeding information to a former town councilor, an accusation for which Thompson apologized after Olmstead took the podium himself to explain the Nov. 15 council meeting where the “Crow’s Nest” made its reappearance.
“Enough is enough,” Olmstead said as he stepped down from the dais. “I’m going to walk through the steps that occurred on Nov. 15.”
Envelopes were found in front of each councilor, including two newly elected members, Olmstead said, with a note indicating that the packet should be opened after the meeting.
Olmstead said that when at-large councilor Richard DeGrandpre opened the packet against its printed instructions, he told DeGrandpre to “put that thing away.”
“I said, ‘it’s happening again,’” Olmstead said. “And for those of you who have been around a long time, you will know that when ‘Crow’s Nest’ was coming out 10 years ago, I was on the front page being scolded for various things that I did or said and so I’ve been victimized by the ‘Crow’s Nest.’”
Olmstead said he has never had any input into the publication and that he would welcome an investigation to find the document’s author.
In Thompson’s comments Tuesday, he alleged that former town councilor Ed Campbell is responsible for the publication, which Campbell said “ crossed the line” in a phone interview with The Times Record from his home in West Gardiner.
“I haven’t been on the council in 10 years,” Campbell said. “They can think all they want but they’ve got to be bucking up with the proof because they went way across the line (Tuesday) night.”
After watching video of Tuesday’s meeting, Campbell said he has consulted with a lawyer.
For the new council, Campbell said that “it’s too bad that they’re getting caught up with this foolishness.”
Councilors also voiced strong dissatisfaction with accusations made at the podium during Tuesday’s meeting.
“While we’re encouraging people to be free and forthcoming with their comments, we encourage everyone to be responsible, and irresponsible charges are not a part of the civic discourse,” District 2 councilor Kate Arno said.
Peter Thompson’s wife, Sandra Thompson, said Tuesday that the statements were the result of information that was not divulged during discussion of the topic at the Dec. 6 Town Council meeting, which started an exchange Tuesday night with council chairman Cassida.
“It takes someone getting up here knowing what little bit we know to ask the questions and make the assumptions because no one is telling us anything else,” Thompson said. “Share the information, trust us with it, we’re on your side, we want things to move forward.”
Cassida said that Thompson should have called or spoken to town officials to “ask questions of the individuals without standing in a public meeting and making accusations.”
“You have control of that, as well as us, so it’s a two-way street,” Cassida said. “So, who owes who an apology?”
“Not I,” Thompson said, continuing that she would like to see better communication from the town.
After an apology for alleging that Olmstead had leaked information to the publisher of the “Crow’s Nest,” Peter Thompson said that better dialogue could help to “nip these things in the bud.”
Read the council's full statement and the Attorney General's response to Police Chief Gerald Schofield: