THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

State cools threat to blogger over food stamp post

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / November 12, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said yesterday it never meant to “raise the specter of prosecution’’ when it told the cofounder of a local website that he could face jail time for publishing information that the state mistakenly provided about where people spend food stamps.

As First Amendment lawyers and journalists rushed to the defense of the website MuckRock (muckrock.com), a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transitional Assistance characterized the controversy that erupted this week as a misunderstanding.

The spokeswoman, Jennifer Kritz, said in a brief statement that her department e-mailed the website’s cofounder, Michael Morisy, on Monday “out of concern that the federal government might hold Mr. Morisy liable for posting the data online’’ after her department mistakenly released it in response to the site’s open-records request.

Although the e-mail said the federal government prohibited the release of the information and that failure to remove the posting from the website could result in fines or imprisonment, Kritz said the state was merely relaying the message.

“Based on the federal government’s policies, we respectfully suggested that he remove the data from his website and in no way meant to raise the specter of prosecution,’’ Kritz said in the statement. She referred further inquiries to the federal government.

The statement left unanswered the question of whether the federal government does plan to pursue the matter further if the website declines to remove the posting. A spokeswoman for the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program that provides food stamps, could not be reached yesterday. The service said in a statement Wednesday that it had merely told the state not to release such data in the future because it is restricted by federal law.

Morisy, a 26-year-old Cornell University graduate who started MuckRock six months ago with Mitchell Kotler, a former college roommate, said yesterday that he has no intention of removing the posting, regardless of what the government does.

“I do understand that there are legal limitations between what you can and cannot print,’’ said Morisy, who lives in Somerville. “If there were Social Security numbers in the data, we wouldn’t publish it. If there were victims of crimes whose privacy would be violated by publishing this, we wouldn’t publish it. But this is data about how government money is being spent. I think the public has a right to know that.’’

Morisy, the former managing editor of Cornell’s student newspaper, said MuckRock publishes a variety of information based on open-records requests to Massachusetts government agencies. The reports have ranged from the training of state troopers to the most popular breeds of dogs in various communities.

He distinguished MuckRock from WikiLeaks, the international organization that publishes documents from anonymous sources and leaks, saying, “We actually created MuckRock as a legal alternative to WikiLeaks so that people could get government documents in a legal and an aboveboard way.’’

Open-records requests, he said, are “the most by-the-books way to get data you can go.’’

Three weeks ago, MuckRock posted data the Department of Transitional Assistance said it released by mistake showing how much money in food stamps has been spent at businesses around the state over the past five years under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The statistics identify individual businesses — such as 7-Eleven branches, Whole Foods outlets, and White Pantry stores — but do not identify food-stamp recipients.

The records show that federal reimbursements for food stamps in Massachusetts more than doubled to $559 million between 2006 and 2009, as the economy slumped.

Morisy said he sought the information partly in response to anecdotal accounts of people misusing food stamps in places such as liquor stores.

Journalists and First Amendment lawyers yesterday strongly defended MuckRock, with one saying government lawyers must be misinterpreting the federal law concerning the release of the food stamp data.

“That’s disclosable information in the first place,’’ said David Cuillier, , an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona and a scholar on the Freedom of Information Act.

“There’s a huge bar for the government telling us what we can say or print: It’s imminent harm, national security,’’ Cuillier said. “Clearly, how many food stamps went to the local 7-Eleven is not going to cross that bar.’’

Cuillier characterized Kritz’s statement as “back-pedaling’’ and “spinning’’ and said the state “screwed up’’ by sending the e-mail and should apologize to Morisy and the public.

Robert J. Ambrogi, a First Amendment lawyer and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said that even if it were illegal for the state to release the food stamp data, MockRock did nothing wrong by publishing it.

In a 1979 case called Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing, the US Supreme Court held that journalists cannot be prosecuted for publishing truthful information they legally obtained, “absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.’’

“This is exactly the kind of information that should be made public, and it serves the public to have this up there on the Web,’’ he said.

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.