‘Turtleboy’ blogger wages First Amendment battle over witness intimidation charges

Crime

A lawyer for Aidan Kearney accused prosecutors of a “multi-front censorship war on the public’s entitlement to good government and our right-to-know.”

“Turtleboy” blogger Aidan Kearney talks to reporters outside Stoughton District Court after his arraignment on witness intimidation charges in connection with his coverage of the Karen Read murder case. Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe Staff, File

“Turtleboy” blogger Aidan Kearney’s criminal proceedings have become a First Amendment battleground as the Holden man faces witness intimidation charges tied to his controversial coverage of the murder case against Karen Read.

He appeared in Norfolk Superior Court on Wednesday seeking to overturn the bail conditions set during his district court arraignment earlier this month, which included orders to stay away from and have no contact with several witnesses in Read’s case.

Judge Peter B. Krupp did not issue a ruling and took the matter under advisement, noting that the lack of a specified distance in Kearney’s stay-away orders “seems to be an ambiguity that does limit what he can do.”

  • Here’s what ‘Turtleboy’ blogger Aidan Kearney had to say about those witness intimidation charges

  • ‘Turtleboy’ blogger Aidan Kearney charged with witness intimidation in connection with Karen Read case

Kearney has so far published 200 installments of his series on Read, who is accused of backing into her boyfriend — Boston police officer John O’Keefe — with her SUV and leaving him to die outside a fellow Boston officer’s home in Canton last year. 

The sensational murder case is rife with speculation as Read’s lawyers argue that she’s being framed and that other guests at the home are to blame for O’Keefe’s death, a theory prosecutors have repeatedly denied. 

Kearney, meanwhile, has used his social media platforms and website, TB Daily News, to promote the defense team’s allegations of a cover-up. His blogs, social media posts, and livestream videos about the case are marked by provocative rhetoric and in-your-face reporting tactics that often prompt tense interactions with his subjects.

On his website, Kearney sells a slew of Karen Read-themed merchandise, as well as T-shirts and other items branded with his own mugshot and slogans like “Free Turtleboy” and “Journalism is Not a Crime.”

A matter of free speech? 

In a motion last week, Boston-based defense attorney Tim Bradl described Kearney as a “professional member of the press” and called on the court to vacate his prior bail conditions “on First Amendment and overbreadth grounds.” 

The eight witnesses he’s accused of intimidating — including the lead Massachusetts State Police investigator on Read’s case — are fair subjects of inquiry for Kearney’s reporting, his lawyer argued.

Where prosecutors said Kearney’s rolling rallies outside witnesses’ homes and noisy scenes at their children’s sporting events were intimidation, the blogger’s lawyer called them “time-honored journalistic tactics for newsgathering.”

While setting the conditions of his release on personal recognizance, district court Judge Daniel O’Malley warned Kearney that he could be incarcerated for up to 90 days without bail if he failed to steer clear of the named witnesses.

In an affidavit accompanying his motion for bail review, Kearney asserted that the stay-away orders act as prior restraint on his reporting, adding, “It has created a chilling effect where I am afraid to report news and investigate leads due to fear of being incarcerated for 90 days.”

Bradl further laid the foundation for a First Amendment defense in a press release last week.

“They have trampled on Turtleboy’s civil rights, stolen his ability to earn a living, and upped the ante to new levels in the multi-front censorship war on the public’s entitlement to good government and our right-to-know,” he wrote. “This will not stand.”

‘They’re not defending journalism’

In a response, however, special prosecutor Ken Mello contended that the First Amendment “is not a license to violate state or federal law and does not confer any special dispensation to journalists, so called, should they violate criminal statutes.”

He denied claims that Kearney’s bail orders restrict his reporting on the Read case, pointing out that the court specifically noted that Kearney is not prohibited from attending hearings where witnesses are present — only from contacting or harassing them. 

According to Mello’s filing, the Massachusetts law regarding witness intimidation does not require an action to be overtly threatening for it to count as intimidating.

Alleging that Kearney published some witnesses’ personal information and addresses online, Mello also asserted that doxxing — the act of sharing someone’s private information without their permission — is not considered protected free speech, as its “sole purpose and intent … is to incite others to commit harassing, intimidating and illegal acts.” 

At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, Krupp likewise seemed skeptical of the defense team’s claim, reading aloud a statement Kearney allegedly made while calling one of the witnesses during a July 8 YouTube livestream: “It’s Turtleboy from them advantage boys. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Yo, we’ll f— any of you dogs up.”

“You think any journalist can call up a witness and say that and not have it be construed as witness intimidation or a threat?” Krupp asked Bradl, who replied in the affirmative and later clarified that Kearney was satirizing something the witness had previously said.

“Polite society might not like it,” Bradl acknowledged, but he maintained that Kearney isn’t “someone who is spewing hate.”

“This is a journalist doing good work exposing corruption, exposing the government,” Bradl said. 

Mello, by contrast, asserted that Kearney’s is not a First Amendment case. 

“They’re not defending journalism,” he said, later adding, “You can’t hide behind the shield of a journalist to break the law.”


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