Independent journalist Grant Smith-Ellis was barred on Aug. 4, 2023, from attending future press scrums or otherwise engaging in a professional capacity with the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, after the state body decided he was not a member of the press.
Smith-Ellis told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker via email that he has reported on the commission for more than four years, broadcasting its monthly public meeting and publishing articles about it on his personal website and with outlets such as DigBoston. But at the beginning of August, the commission emailed to notify him that he would only be permitted to interact with the commission and seek information through the same channels available to the general public.
The email, which Smith-Ellis provided to the Tracker, claimed that Smith-Ellis had voiced his personal opinions during legislative hearings and it questioned his “general code of conduct as a purported member of the press.”
“On multiple occasions in recent months, the information you have disseminated as journalism on your social media channels has not been conveyed accurately or fairly, and blended rumor and conjecture with fact,” the commission wrote. “[The] information you rush to post is often riddled with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims.”
When asked about the commission’s characterization of him as an advocate rather than a journalist, Smith-Ellis rejected the idea that reporters must maintain objectivity.
“Journalists are not dispassionate robots, nor should our government ever be in a position to demand such a thing from those in the Fourth Estate,” he said. “Journalists are human beings who tell human stories through human mediums.”
Smith-Ellis maintains that the target of the ban was his watchdog reporting and was an “attempt to silence critical coverage about internal agency dynamics.”
Smith-Ellis said he had asked the commission to review the decision, as it has no policy dictating press behavior or stipulations for inclusion on press lists. He was told on Aug. 7 that no review would be provided. A subsequent petition to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest appellate court, was denied without a hearing, Smith-Ellis added.
“As things stand, I am no longer permitted to send press inquiries to [Cannabis Control Commission] press staff or attend press conferences after each monthly public CCC hearing,” Smith-Ellis told the Tracker. “Over the past month, this punitive ban has prevented me from being able to ask the CCC questions on a number of pressing issues in the public interest.”
When asked via email about the commission’s media policies, a spokesperson said that the commission's public meetings are open to reporters, in person or online, and that journalists can question commissioners afterwards during a staff-led media availability. The spokesperson did not offer a further statement on why Smith-Ellis’ access was restricted.
Smith-Ellis told the Tracker he is considering next steps to address what he characterizes as a chilling overreach by a government agency.
“The government has a right to dislike my reporting. The government has a right to seek corrections (which I have always issued when asked). The government does not have a right to silence critical journalism, without even basic due process, on the basis of its content,” Smith-Ellis said.