“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
– First Amendment to the United States Constitution
Freedom of the press from government censorship is a fundamental right. On October 29 at approximately 10:15am, I witnessed the County of Maui violating that right, as two County employees physically removed an entire stack, or approximately 100 copies, of MauiTime from our branded distribution rack in the lobby of the County building in Wailuku. The issue in question features a caricature of Mayor Charmaine Tavares on the cover, accompanying a story titled “The Seven Scariest County & State Elected Officials.”
When confronted, the County employees replaced the papers, refused to identify themselves and returned to the elevator. I followed them, and when asked what floor they were going to, they exchanged glances and failed to answer. After they exited the elevator on the fifth floor (the Mayor’s office is on the ninth), I returned to the lobby, where I was met by Public Information Officer Mahina Martin. (See the accompanying, unedited video of our conversation.)
In the end, this is about your freedom. Today the County of Maui tried to prevent you from being able to pick up and read a newspaper that contained critical statements about public officials. Whether or not you agree with our stories or choose to read our paper, that decision is yours to make, not government’s.
Even in the face of censorship, we will continue to offer independent, unflinching coverage of local politics. We hope you will join us in defending this bedrock freedom.
Tommy Russo, Publisher, MauiTime
UPDATE: On the afternoon of October 30, I met with Public Information Officer Mahina Martin. Our hour-long discussion was mutually respectful and productive.
I agree that this week’s cover was over-the-top; our intention was obviously to provoke a response and clearly we’ve done that. I understand that some people find the cover illustration offensive, and, as ever, we welcome comments both positive and negative from readers. That dialogue and feedback is a huge part of what we do. (I hope people will also take the time to read the accompanying article.)
To the credit of the County and the Mayor’s office, since yesterday, the papers have not been removed from the lobby of the County building, and Mahina assured me they won’t be removed by County employees again.
That’s a good start. I’ve also asked the Mayor’s office to make a formal public policy statement that removing the papers was an error and that an incident like this won’t occur again, to us or any other publication. Furthermore, we want assurances that the police will take an incident like this as seriously as they would any other theft in the lobby of the County building. (For those who have asked if taking free papers constitutes a theft, each issue of MauiTime states: “MauiTime is valued at $0.50 per copy and permits one complimentary copy per person. No person may, without written permission from MauiTime, take more than one copy of each weekly issue.”)
Some have said we’re making a mountain out of a molehill, that we have an inflated sense of our own importance. But this is much bigger than one newspaper or one Mayoral Administration. This is about freedom of the press from government censorship. For public employees to confiscate a newspaper from a public building—whether they were ordered to do so or were acting of their own volition—is a violation of the First Amendment. Period.
You may not like or agree with what we write. You may not read or even care about MauiTime. That’s fine. But you should care about your fundamental rights, and hold your government accountable when it violates them.
Thanks again for all your feedback.
– Tommy Russo