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See Something, Say Something #19

The Greenfield Recorder Deleted an Op-ed Calling for a Military Coup

By The Shoestring

Earlier this month the Greenfield Recorder quietly removed a guest column by former Conway select board chair John O’Rourke from their website after significant public backlash over the opinion piece, which advocated for a military coup and perpetuated misinformation about election fraud.

“The hard evidence of election fraud and that President Trump received the most legitimate votes is reportedly in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies loyal to our constitutional republic and legitimate elections. This will soon be revealed to the public,” O’Rourke wrote. “The enemy is inside the wire. I hope our military acts soon.”

To be clear, O’Rourke is wrong. There has been no evidence of widespread election fraud during the 2020 presidential election. Subsequent audits of the election results in states like Georgia, Michigan and Nevada found no evidence of fraud, while dozens of lawsuits challenging election results filed by Trump’s legal team have all been dismissed in various courts. Despite this evidence, the Recorder allowed O’Rourke to make claims like this:

“[T]here was massive election fraud by a number of domestic and foreign actors to ensure the globalist/leftist ‘victory,’ as was reported by multiple credible channels despite statistical anomalies, rigged vote-counting machines, vote-switching algorithms, expert testimony, and 1,000 eyewitness affidavits,” he said.

The title of the column, “Sixty Days,” references the number of days since Biden’s inauguration and the continuation of what O’Rourke calls the “globalist/leftist administration.” In less than 750 words, O’Rourke manages to call the Chinese Community Party “clearly our top enemy,” laments the jobs lost to the closure of the Keystone XL pipeline (which would be temporary at best), and parrots other right-wing talking points about gender and sexuality. In the column, O’Rourke uses the phrase “globalist/leftist” eight separate times. 

John Bonifaz, an Amherst attorney, president of the nonprofit Free Speech for People, and co-founder of the National Voting Rights Institute, was one of several people to contact the Recorder with concerns about the op-ed. He spoke with the paper’s editor-in-chief Joan Livingston and publisher Shawn Palmer about why the paper should retract the story and clarify their policies around publishing misinformation and threats of violence.

The Greenfield Recorder should not be using its platform to publish misinformation or to publish threats of violence,” Bonifaz said. “I said the piece should be taken down and replaced with an editor’s note.… [Livingston] said she wouldn’t do that.”

While the First Amendment defends an individual’s right to free speech, it does not extend to criminal acts or threats of violence, Bonifaz said. Legal scholars cite the “imminent lawless action” standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio case, which limits speech that is likely to incite illegal action. 

In the weeks preceding the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol (which O’Rourke claims was staged by “media in league with the leftists”) social media companies played a critical role in the spread of misinformation. Since then, companies like Twitter and Facebook have shut down seditious groups and violent speech, a stance The Recorder seems unwilling to articulate a position on. 

“Here in this community, this is a microcosm of what is happening around the country,” Bonifaz said of O’Rourke’s column. 

When he asked for information about the Recorder’s editorial policies around misinformation or threats of violence, Bonifaz received no direct answer from either Livingston or Palmer, and neither did The Shoestring. Finally reached by phone last week, Livingston said “I’m not going to comment on that,” and refused to elaborate on the paper’s editorial standards in general. Palmer, the newly appointed publisher of Newspapers of New England’s Massachusetts newspapers, did not return repeated requests for comment. 

“I find it dissatisfying that the Greenfield Recorder did not go further in creating this policy,” Bonifaz said. “The fact they can’t even face up to that is disappointing.”

Allowing the publication of a story that advocates for violence and contains proven falsehoods is irresponsible behavior for a publication, Bonifaz said. He has called on the company to formally retract the story with an editor’s note acknowledging the error, instead of just removing the piece from the website. The link where the column used to be now directs to a broken webpage.

Continuing to allow the publication of columns that contain false information and threats of violence “endangers democracy and civil society,” Bonifaz said. Removing the story from the website is objectively an admission of wrongdoing, and a failure to set the record straight is evidence of poor editorial standards, he said. 

Bonifaz declined to write a “My Turn” column in response to O’Rourke, saying he did not want to perpetuate the “both sides” narrative. 

“I don’t need to help create this facade here that it’s a balance of opinions,” Bonifaz said. “This is about an issue where one side has facts and another side has no facts.”

Several other people wrote guest editorials in response to O’Rourke’s piece, which the Recorder published over the following days. 

“Imagine, if you will, being so incapable of recognizing how unpopular your candidate was, and so unwilling to accept the evidence presented to you, that you conclude that the most closely observed presidential election in the history of the United States of America was rigged,” wrote Benny Coan-Nixon. “Embarrassing, Mr. O’Rourke.”

“I am once again struck by the amount of ink The Recorder is giving to a man who does not care for fact,” Daniel Goldstein wrote to the Recorder. “I take personal offense and demand an in-print apology — not from O’Rourke, but from The Recorder, who should know better. Shame on you.”

“Perhaps the editor has another reason to want the conspiracy theories and seditious ideas expressed in the piece propounded,” wrote Donald Joralemon of Conway. “Perhaps the editor simply wants to sell more subscriptions with controversy. Either way, it was a profound error to publish the essay and to refuse a reasonable request for the online version of the paper to carry a simple disclaimer. What the Recorder owes its readers is better judgment.”

A former Marine, O’Rourke used to be chair of the council to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, a member of the right-wing Massachusetts Municipal Association, and an appointee to the Governor’s Local Government Advisory Commission.

This wasn’t the first time O’Rourke used the pages of the Greenfield Recorder to air personal grievances that are devoid of fact. A select board incumbent of several years, O’Rourke lost his seat to Erica Goleman this summer. Afterwards he wrote a letter to the editor, published on July 22, claiming election fraud and blaming the “leftist mob” for his defeat.

“This faux election had nothing to do with my far superior qualifications and everything to do with my support of the rule of law that opposes the leftist mob that advocates for skirting the law for illegal aliens and sanctuary communities,” O’Rourke wrote. “Voting against the most qualified person is like shooting yourself in the foot and can only be characterized as seriously stupid.”

The letter ended in a similarly menacing tone.

“Now that Conway has revealed its predominant true nature as a malicious, vacuous and ungrateful community, I have ended all my involvement in and support of the town,” O’Rourke said. “Conway, you have proven that you do not deserve me; but you will deserve what you have coming.”

O’Rourke also vehemently opposed Conway’s passing of the Safe Community bylaw in June 2018, which in theory protected residents from police detainment based on perceived immigration status and established that the town was welcoming of immigrants in general. He talked about the law on New England Public Media’s Connecting Point, calling for a citizen petition to repeal the symbolic vote in the small town.  

“All the information I have indicates that the majority of the residents of Conway are not very happy with being called a sanctuary community,” he said. “There are citizens who are concerned that now that we do have this label, it could attract people that are here in the country illegally.”

Before the bylaw was to be discussed at Conway’s 2018 annual town meeting, someone placed copies of O’rourke’s recent opinion column on each seat in the gymnasium, which called for a repeal of the bylaw.

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