Sen. Richard Blumenthal Receives ‘First Amendment Defender Award’ on Same Day He Introduces Pro-Censorship Bill

Blumenthal
Sen. Dick "Five Deferments" Blumenthal, at a Democrat rally in 2017. (Senate Democrats via Flickr; cropped from original)
A national TV and radio journalism group gave Sen. Richard Blumenthal a "First Amendment Defender Award" on the same day he introduced legislation to censor the internet.

In an ironic, man-bites-dog moment, the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF), a non-profit trade organization, bestowed its 2020 “First Amendment Defender Award” to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on March 5, the same day Blumenthal and fellow sponsors formally introduced broad new legislation that would curtail free speech on the internet.

Blumenthal was among several honorees at a black-tie banquet held at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, DC as part of the foundation’s 30th Annual First Amendment Awards. RTDNF chair Jerry Walsh, an executive in charge of local content development with Nexstar Media Group, LLC, presented a plaque to Blumenthal, saying that the two-term Democratic Senator had “championed the rights of journalists to deliver the truth and inform the public.”

In accepting the award, the Connecticut pol waxed nostalgic about working as a summer intern at the Washington Post while he was a student at Harvard University. He also talked up his proposed legislation, the Journalist Protection Act, which would allow federal prosecutors to go after assaults on members of the press, although local laws against assault already cover journalists, just as they do everyone else.

Blumy’s Censorship Board

What neither Blumenthal nor Walsh mentioned was that earlier that same day Blumenthal and a handful of other lawmakers, formally introduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT Act), which has been widely condemned by electronic privacy and civil liberties experts as an attempt to undermine encryption and further limit free speech on the internet.

As Santa Clara University School of Law Professor Eric Goldman explained in a recent post to his influential Technology and Marketing Law Blog, the EARN IT Act proposes to protect the public from dangerous content by creating a de facto internet “censorship board,” dominated by the U.S. Attorney General and others in law enforcement. This censorship commission would develop a set of “best practices,” to which websites would have to adhere, or risk losing part of their immunity for content posted by users under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act .

In the name of battling “child sexual abuse material” (aka, child pornography),  the EARN IT Act’s censorship board could impose a smorgasbord of rules on internet services and websites, including a backdoor to encryption, mandatory age authentication and the banning of posts deemed sexually suggestive.

Not only could the EARN IT Act’s heavy-handed regulation of the internet clamp down on free expression, it could directly impact journalists, who often rely on encrypted communications from sources to report on stories. Groups as ideologically diverse as the ACLU, Americans for Prosperity and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have blasted the bill as a dangerous power-grab by the federal government.

Given this, how does the Radio Television Digital News Foundation justify presenting Blumenthal with a First Amendment award in spite of his authoritarian scheme to roll back internet freedoms?

EARN IT, Nexstar

Dan Shelley, executive director of the RTDNF and its sister organization, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), told Front Page Confidential via email that the RTDNF’s 25-member board of trustees “voted unanimously last fall for Sen. Blumenthal to receive this year’s award,” a decision that he said was based upon Blumenthal’s “long record of advocating for a free press, including, but not limited to, his introduction for, and longstanding support of, the Journalist Protection Act.”

Shelley added that the EARN IT Act “was not discussed or otherwise considered, as neither RTDNF nor or its parent organization, the Radio Television Digital News Association, has taken a position on the proposed legislation.”

One of the sponsors of the RTDNF awards ceremony was Nexstar Media Group, which bills itself online as “America’s largest local television and media company with 197 full power stations (including partner stations) in 115 markets addressing nearly 63% of US television households and a growing digital media operation.”

Last year, Blumenthal and other legislators intervened in a contractual dispute between Nexstar and  AT&T that for several weeks kicked Nexstar stations off AT&T-owned platforms, such as DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.

In a July 5, 2019 letter to AT&T and Nexstar execs — one touted in a Nexstar press release — Blumenthal bemoaned the effect of the dispute on “customers in the Hartford-New Haven market.” And he encouraged both sides to “negotiate in good faith” and “immediately provide carriage” of two Connecticut stations that had been impacted.

A subsequent Nexstar press release noted that “legislators from eight states,” including Blumenthal and fellow U.S. Senators like John Thune of South Dakota and Louisiana’s John Kennedy, had issued letters “urging direct broadcast satellite service provider [DirecTV] and AT&T U-verse to immediately restore carriage of Nexstar-owned stations.”

By the end of August, AT&T and Nexstar had buried their technological hatchets, according to USA Today, signing “a new multiyear deal,” allowing 120 Nexstar stations back on AT&T platforms.

Shelley said Blumenthal’s effort last year to bring the contractual contretemps to a close had not been a factor in the RTDNF award.

“As a participant in the conversations leading up to that decision, I know first-hand that there was no discussion among our Board of Trustees regarding the senator’s letter last year both to AT&T and Nexstar in which he urged them to resolve business issues that were preventing DirecTV customers in Connecticut from viewing Nexstar stations,” Shelley explained in an email to Front Page Confidential.

Shelley quoted a relevant part of Blumenthal’s letter from last year, where the Senator stated that he was taking “no definitive position supporting either side” in the squabble.

Blumy Responds

Similarly, when contacted by Front Page Confidential, Blumenthal’s communications director Maria McElwain responded with the following statement via email:

“Senator Blumenthal was honored to receive the First Amendment Defender Award for his work on press freedom. He’s also proud to stand up on behalf of Connecticut consumers who were being denied coverage and access to local programming that they paid for. The two are not related. Have you had a chance to read the letter Senator Blumenthal sent to AT&T and Nexstar? He specifically noted that he was not taking a definitive position supporting either side in the dispute.”

As a follow-up, FPC asked McElwain why was the bill dropped March 5? After all, a draft of the bill had been circulating for at least a month.

McElwain has yet to respond.

A spokesman for Nexstar referred all questions to the RTDNF.

Thing is, Blumenthal’s EARN It Act is hardly a one-off, and the senator seems an odd choice for a First Amendment plaudit considering his hostility toward free speech online and off.

He’s been no great friend of the Fourth Estate either.

A few examples:

  • Blumenthal was one of many U.S. politicians who hailed the 2019 arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The controversial publisher and editor exposed U.S. government wrongdoing and coverups by making public the so-called “collateral murder” video, publishing the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, releasing the “Cablegate” leaks, and so on. Blumenthal insisted Assange “should be extradited and face justice here” in the U.S.  for publishing the truth, the very thing his erstwhile mentors at the Washington Post once did when it came to the Pentagon Papers.
  • During his tenure as Connecticut Attorney General, Blumenthal spearheaded an effort by state AGs across the country to pressure the classified listings giant Craigslist into suspending its adult services category, noting that sex workers “appear to use the site’s ‘erotic services’ to advertise for clients.” The campaign ultimately was successful, with Craigslist eliminating the section in 2010, though such ads reportedly migrated to other parts of the site.
  • In 2018, Blumenthal sponsored a federal bill to curtail Section 230 protections for websites, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). SESTA merged with a House version of the same bill and was signed into law by President Trump, effectively outlawing all adult advertising online in the name of battling sex trafficking — which involves either children or coerced commercial sex among adults, as opposed to consensual adult sex work, i.e., prostitution. The new law triggered widespread self-censorship online by websites fearful that any erotic or sexual content could put them in the DOJ’s crosshairs.
  • Blumenthal had argued that SESTA was needed to takedown the classified advertising site Backpage.com over legal adult ads posted by the site’s users. But days before Trump signed the bill, the U.S. Department of Justice seized Backpage and eradicated it from the internet, in a brazen act of direct government censorship. The DOJ also arrested the site’s former owners, veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, falsely charging them on 100 counts related to money laundering, conspiracy and the facilitation of prostitution across state lines. (Full disclosure: Lacey and Larkin founded Front Page Confidential in 2017 to report on all issues related to the First Amendment and freedom of speech.)

Considering Blumenthal’s track record on free speech and the press, dubbing him a “First Amendment Defender,” seems inaccurate, at the very least.

Still, it’s not as bad as Blumenthal’s own flubs from a few years back, when he incorrectly told audiences that he had “served in Vietnam.”

Actually, according to the New York Times, Blumenthal received five deferments before scoring a plum assignment in a DC-based Marine Reserve unit, which “focused on local projects, like fixing a campground and organizing a Toys for Tots drive.”

Noble work, no doubt.

But that kind of genteel public service doesn’t make Blumenthal a war veteran, any more than his attempts to rein in online speech and undermine encryption make him a First Amendment “defender.”

And ICYMI, please see:
The Guns of August: Judge Resets Start Date of Lacey/Larkin Trial
and
Remembering Marcia Powell with the Help of PJ Starr’s No Human Involved

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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