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Andrea McCarren, the Death of the First Amendment and When Our Jobs Collide With Our Kids

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So the big news on my Bethesda Chevy Chase High (BCC) School PTSA Listserve is that local television journalist, Andrea McCarren has withdrawn from coverage of underage drinking in Montgomery County, Maryland following a backlash which included criticism of the reports on the television station’s website and bullying and threats against McCarren’s children attend BCC as does my daughter. Though I don’t condone bullying and I understand the instinct to protect our kids at all costs, by dropping the series because it wasn’t popular, McCarren dishonors the First Amendment, not to mention the many journalists who put their lives at risk to get the news out to the public. McCarren may have helped her kids in the short run, but in the long run, she’s allowed mob rule to threaten all of our liberties, which will only hurt McCarren’s kids, and indeed all of us in the long term.

I’m not suggesting that McCarren should have sat idly by and kept her kids in harm’s way. But there are far more precise measures to address possible harm to her children than pulling out of the story (which in my view, will just further enable bullies). For example, I am quite certain that a visit to the school’s administrators by a well known reporter like McCarren, and a visit to the police station to file charges against students who threatened violence against McCarren’s children — would have addressed the safety issue far more effectively than ceasing coverage. Indeed, to the extent that there are kids at my daughter’s high school capable of violence and inappropriate conduct, I would have preferred swift, harsh penalties against the offenders to deter others and ensure a safe environment.

Still, the McCarren story got me thinking. As lawyers, we often handle controversial cases — defending less-than-savory characters, advocating for First Amendment rights of those who hold unpopular views and bringing claims against powerful members of the community. To the extent that our work bleeds over into our children’s lives and causes them harm and discomfort, should we stop as McCarren did, or make our children understand the risks of our jobs?

Naturally, I fall squarely into the latter category. Sure, there’s quite a bit that I’ll do to prevent my daughters from experiencing public humiliation — for instance, I won’t wear to tutu to a parent-teacher conference, and I try to stay away from chaperoning school social events because I know that I’d be a source of embarrassment. But when it comes to my livelihood and more importantly, the Constitution, I draw the line. My daughters understand that I have opinions and I hold them strongly. They understand that I’ve been sued for expressing my First Amendment rights at my blog and that while being sued isn’t fun, backing down isn’t an option. Atticus Finch may be a fictitious character, but what he taught his children — who were bullied after Atticus agreed to represent Tom Robinson — is real: lawyers must stand up for injustice, and sometimes their family must bear the consequences.

Standing on principle isn’t always fun and won’t win any popularity contests. Still, I can’t think of a more important lesson to impart to our children. Andrea McCarren chose not to. How would you choose?

Note: I’m posting on this issue because it’s one that we as lawyers deal with in our own practices. But it’s also because I tried to post my view to the PTSA listserve and I was banned from doing so even though my email was compliant with the list rules. Still, given the overwhelming support for McCarren’s decision, I’m not surprised that the list moderators don’t quite get the First Amendment.

Update 1 (2/16/2012, 1 pm) – Right after I posted, I saw  reports that Ms. McCarren will continue the teen drinking series after all.  Good for her!

Update 2 – Here is why my message criticizing McCarren from backing down was banned from the Bethesda Chevy Chase listserve.  P

“Your message is primarily about your views of the first amendment and your critique of the reporter’s actions. It is therefore off topic and not for bccnet. Other messages have been rejected the same reason. There is a distinction between the message and the messenger.”

lease note, that my critique of the reporter’s actions came in response to an email which had sought support for the reporter’s actions.  Go figure.

  • Jon

    While I agree with the ideals that you uphold, I cannot say that I agree wholeheartedly that my children should face consequences for actions that I choose to take.  My children are blameless in the matter.  I’m to blame.  Let the consequences fall on me.  If they fall on my children, then I must carefully consider whether my actions are important enough to me for my children to suffer.  Isn’t the First Amemndent as protective of what you say as it is of whether you choose to continue to say it?

    I applaud your stance.  I’m just not sure I would continue as you would.  But that would be my choice, just as it is yours. 

  • LindaSaffell

    Carolyn, this is a thought-provoking blog post, but I side with Jon’s earlier comment here.  I think that you’re blaming the victim — and a crusading victim who has a strong reputation for standing up to a lot of nefarious tactics and people.  And I also think that it is important NOT to make assumptions about what would “certainly” fix a problem.  I hope that you reached out personally too, to McCarren as a fellow parent who is engaged and sympathetic about the impact on bullying and retaliation.  I know personally that what we think will result in positive actions, can also as often result in retribution and very strange leaps of illogic on the part of people in power positions. 

    If the First Amendment is dying, I would lay the blame on the bulliers, not on the natural human impulse to protect those close to us. 

    I also think that your reaction to having your side of the story quashed on the PTSA discussion list should be stronger, particularly if you are really concerned about First Amendment issues.  McCarren isn’t responsible for that, yet it is just as chilling.

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