Michael Morisy should give thanks for KOREN CHRISTENSEN, the acting general counsel of the state's Department of Transitional Assistance.

Muckrock.com, a Web site put together by Morisy and his friend and tech guru, Mitchell Kotler, was already developing a solid reputation in media circles for using the Massachusetts public-records law to ferret out documents and post them online for the benefit of journalists and other interested parties.

free speech offender Koren Christensen
Then, last fall, Morisy and Kotler received a letter from Christensen. She said that documents the state had given them regarding the use of food stamps at Massachusetts grocery stories were, in fact, not public records, and that they could face fines and even imprisonment if they failed to remove the documents from MuckRock. The records, it should be pointed out, contained no information about any individual food-stamp recipients. Morisy and Kolter, to their credit, declined Christensen's invitation to remove the documents from their Web site.

Contacted by the Boston Globe, Christensen said she was merely passing along a warning she had received from federal officials, who were apparently upset that the state had released what were intended to be confidential federal records. "I don't think it's going to get to that point, but obviously they took it seriously enough to tell us this," Christensen was quoted as saying.

Trouble is, it's a basic First Amendment principle, affirmed by the Supreme Court, that members of the public, including the press and operations such as Morisy's, are free to use information provided to them by the government even if that information was supposed to be kept private. With rare exceptions, the onus for maintaining secrecy is on the custodians of the documents — the government — rather than on the public.

The state quickly backed down, with a state spokeswoman claiming that Christensen had never intended to raise the threat of prosecution. Except, of course, that she had, turning a simple mistake in to a cause célèbre.

"At this point, I think the legal issue will blow over," Morisy told the Phoenix just before it did, in fact, blow over. "But it's still interesting, because all of a sudden people got very interested in what we're doing."

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