Former Governor Deval Patrick is attempting to alter First Amendment protections. At least according to some sources.
Before he left office in 2015, Saundra Edwards filed a defamation suit against Patrick, who he had previously selected to lead the Sex Offender Registry Board. The lawsuit centers on Edward’s actions regarding a case in which Patrick’s brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, and sister were involved. A secondary officer had decided that Patrick’s brother-in-law did not have to register as a sex offender in the state of Massachusetts, even though he had previously been convicted in California of raping Patrick’s sister. According to the Boston Globe article, Edwards actions were attempting to rectify what she viewed as a mistake because “spousal rape is rape.”
Patrick had told the press that she (along with another official) used “inappropriate at least, maybe unlawful” pressure to list Sigh as a sex offender. Although Edwards agreed to resign (according to her suit), she claims Patrick defamed her by “falsely and maliciously” telling the press she was fired.
Earlier this year, Patrick attempted to get the case thrown out because the statements were made “while he was acting within the scope of his official duties. However, Superior Court Judge Richard Welch II dismissed it.
“The Massachusetts [Supreme Judicial Court] has yet to recognize an absolute privilege covering statements or actions made by a governor within the official scope of his or her duties,” said Welch. “Strong public policy arguments exist for and against such an extension of the absolute privilege doctrine. This judge favors the arguments against extending the absolute privilege so broadly. Ultimately, however, such an important policy determination must be in the hands of the SJC or the Legislature. I decline this invitation to broaden the absolute privilege,” Welch wrote in his decision.
The Supreme Judicial Court recently agreed to listen to Patrick’s case again, giving this case new hope.
Concerns arise if the SJC approve broadening the protection of speech.
“We’re talking about the potential of executive officers abusing a privilege,” Greg Sullivan told the Boston Herald. Sullivan is a First Amendment and media lawyer. “I don’t believe in absolute privileges. If someone commits defamation in bad faith, I don’t believe the First Amendment should protect that.”