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Journalists' Rights

04/22/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert

It's good to see Peter Freyne back on Vermont Public Television's show, "Vermont This Week." For awhile, it looked like he might never be a panelist again. That would have been too bad. Freyne is a seasoned columnist for the Burlington weekly, Seven Days. His news instincts are sharp and his writing solid. Freyne's style, though, is brash and sassy. He's got a nickname for everyone, and his stories are laced with wit and sarcasm. Freyne seems to live his professional life according to a famous dictum enunciated by the journalist, A.J. Liebling. The journalist's job, Liebling said, is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Following the second part of that dictum is what Freyne says got him in trouble. He's written numerous columns that have offended the Republican leadership in the House. The speaker, Walter Freed - whom Freyne calls "the Duke of Dorset" - won't even talk to him. Freyne claimed that Republicans got their revenge by blocking some state funds to VPT. Only if Freyne were dismissed as a "Vermont this Week" panelist would VPT get its money, top Republicans said - according to Freyne.

In late March, Freyne was "uninvited" from appearing on the show. The two sides disagree whether this was temporary or permanent. VPT insisted that no legislators pressured the station. The dismissal was because of Freyne's characterization of conservative Republicans as "the Taliban," the station said. The problem with the explanation, though, was that Freyne's use of the term "Taliban" had occurred on a show nearly two months before, and the station had taken no action against him then. Station manager John King bravely apologized for not having acted sooner.

Two weeks passed. News stories about Freyne's ouster appeared in a few papers, and VPT management was questioned by several state senators. Finally, it was announced that the host of "Vermont This Week," Chris Graff of the Associated Press, would decide who appeared on the show. In mid-April, Freyne was back.

From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to know exactly where the truth of this story lies. But even if just a fraction of Freyne's account is true, it's disturbing - from any of a number of angles. It's disturbing if Speaker Freed would consider playing hardball with a news organization because he didn't like one of its columnists. It's disturbing that VPT allowed itself to get caught in this web. At best, VPT mismanaged a sensitive situation. At worst, it caved to political pressure - until pressure from the opposite direction forced it to take a principled stand. It's disturbing that there wasn't stronger support for Freyne's right of free expression. The use of undignified or insulting terms is no grounds for restricting speech.

There was one bright side to Freyne's temporary banishment. In the interlude he did a crackerjack story about how Speaker Freed owns a convenience store near the New York border that benefits from Vermont's low tobacco tax. Freyne reminded us that Speaker Freed has opposed an increase in that tax. I hadn't seen this story anywhere else.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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