Ever hear of Kirby Delauter?
Probably not. He’s an obscure councilman from Frederick County, Md. who was something less than a household name until this past week.
That’s when he threatened a local newspaper with legal action because it used his name without his permission. Really.
The story concerned a debate about Council parking spaces, a minor dust-up in which he was mentioned only briefly.
But it appears that Delauter had a long-simmering feud with Frederick News-Post reporter Bethany Rogers who wrote the parking space piece and decided the time was right to engage in a tirade.
“Shame on Bethany Rodgers for an unauthorized use of my name and my reference in her article today,” he thundered. “She contacted me by phone yesterday, I did not return her call and did not authorize any use of my name or reference in her article.
“Use my name again unauthorized and you'll be paying for an attorney,” he threatened. “Your rights stop where mine start.”
Aside from his embrace of an indefensible position, there are several interesting aspects to this story.
First, Delauter is the first politician I can recall in multiple decades of newsgathering who was trying to keep his name out of the paper.
Oh sure, there have been assorted elected officials over the years who got lockjaw when questions about their sobriety or marital fidelity arose.
And I’m sure Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard and City Manager Michael Beck, who find themselves presiding over a City Hall awash in allegations of a $6 million embezzlement scam, would just as soon not have to chat with the media any time soon.
But most politicians go to great lengths to get local media coverage whether they are touting a piece of legislation or honoring a crossing guard. Visibility means votes.
As "Big Tim" Sullivan, a high-profile political figure who was part of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City once said, "I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right."
Second, Mr. Delauter’s itchy trigger finger thrust him into the national spotlight as a poster boy for First Amendment abuse.
His rant went viral on social media spreading his name far and wide as did the response from the paper’s managing editor Terry Headlee who wrote, “Kirby Delauter can certainly decline to comment on any story. But to threaten to sue a reporter for publishing his name is so ridiculously stupid that I'm speechless.”
The Frederick News-Post then published an editorial response to the news, titled "Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter," in which the name "Kirby Delauter" appears 28 more times.
He even got a scolding from UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh who said, “Uh, council member. In our country, newspapers are actually allowed to write about elected officials (and others) without their permission. It’s an avant-garde experiment, to be sure, but we've had some success with it.”
It was all too much for Mr. Delauter. He ended up apologizing in a statement to the paper which said, “Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job.
“So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong.”
He headlined his press release, “Frederick County Supports Transparent Government.”
At about the same, a Cumberland County (Maine) judge named Jeffrey Moskowitz tried to tell the Portland Press Herald and other media what they could and couldn’t report about a prominent attorney’s domestic violence case which was being held in open court.
Specifically, he said they were forbidden to report any witness testimony or anything said in court by the defendant, attorney Anthony J. Sineni III.
To its credit, the Press Herald ignored the judge; its lawyer said that “there is a 100 percent chance that the order is unlawful.”
Moskowitz, who was blasted by First Amendment experts, returned to the courtroom the next day to admit that he made a mistake. He said: “It’s certainly very clear that this particular order was not lawful and I should not have issued it. That order is now rescinded.”
All’s well that ends well? Not necessarily.
That greatest threat to freedom of expression and the public’s right to know will not come at the hands of extremists such as those in Paris who engaged in a murderous rampage in the name of their religion.
Nor will it come from Third World hackers who came close to dictating what movies Americans can or cannot see, thanks to the actions of a bunch of spineless film executives and theater owners.
The real threat is from grassroots bullies like Councilman Delauter and Judge Moskowitz who think they can run roughshod over our freedoms to suit their own purposes.
Let us be wary of them.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.