He'll get in your face
Litchfield blogger always eager for a cause
His critics also score him as much for poor taste and unfair mockery as content, such as the time his blog linked to a cartoon portraying a Litchfield official as a dominatrix in a Nazi uniform ...
BY GEORGE KRIMSKY
Posted 10:17 p.m., Sun., Aug. 17, 2008
Andy Thibault spends a lot of time in shorts and sandals watching rabbits nibble in his Litchfield backyard. When he feels up to it, he climbs the steep stairs of his Victorian home on a quiet, tree shaded street, turns on the computer and takes on the world.
Muckraking may seem misplaced in such a bucolic setting, but it works just fine for a 55-year-old man trying to recover from stage 3 colon cancer while waging a feisty campaign that could have national significance in the free-speech arena.
Through his news blog, "The Cool Justice Report," Thibault is the prime mover in an effort to challenge the punishment of Avery Doninger, a Lewis S. Mills High School student from Burlington, for critical remarks she made last year on her blog about school administrators.
While a junior at Mills in 2007, Doninger wrote that Region 10 administrators were "douche bags" for their handling of a student [Jamfest] and urged friends to complain. When her comments were discovered, as punishment, Doninger was told she could not run again for class secretary.
After reading about the case in the press last spring, Thibault suspected the issue was broader than a common school discipline problem, and asked Avery and her mother for a meeting. He encouraged them to fight the reprimand in the courts, later organized a fundraiser to pay the legal bills, and has since waged an intensive campaign to obtain official documents and correspondence related to the case.
"A school can't pretend it's a democracy when it denies redress of grievances," he said in a recent interview at his home. That issue, he insisted, transcends any concerns about the crudeness of the student's language or the widespread public airing that her comments got on the Internet.
Doninger, now 18 and headed for college, had claimed that her First Amendment right to free speech had been violated, but an effort to reinstate her re-election to class office was dismissed last August by a federal court judge in New Haven, a decision upheld by an appeal court. The Doningers still plan to bring the case to trial, and have notified the Mills school principal, Karissa Niehoff, that they plan to sue her for libel.
Thibault (pronounced TEE-bow) is well known in Connecticut's legal, court and police circles for his hard-hitting columns in the Connecticut Law Tribune and now his Web site, targeting corruption and ineptitude among judges and police and lobbying for more open government.
Bulldog or pit bull
Thibault attracts strong reactions. Among admirers, he is a bulldog; among detractors, a pit bull. He seems to relish both reputations. When Niehoff called his blog "an awful Web site," he readily posted her comment in bold letters.
Irreverent, caustic, hip and liberal, Thibault's blog (www.cooljustice.blogspot.com) has been a main source of information and advocacy about the Doninger case, which he promised to keep pursuing "at full throttle."
For someone who underwent major surgery and chemotherapy in 2005-06 and still has "stamina issues," why is he devoting so much energy to this case? Thibault said he views the Doninger episode as crucial to a student's right to self-protection, challenging the power of schools to control what minors can say in the relatively uncharted waters of the Internet age, even when they are not in school. But he confessed to personal reasons, too.
When he first met Avery at a Litchfield restaurant in the spring of 2007, she reminded him of his stepdaughter, Kelsley Lyons, who died in a car crash in 1998. "I thought Avery had the same guts and backbone," Thibault said.
He added that he also wanted to "test my mental and physical capabilities" after two years of professional inaction while battling colon cancer. He had lost 60 pounds.
Judging by the voluminous and detailed blog reports and correspondence about the case, Thibault is back in fighting shape, an apt analogy for a journalist-turned-advocate who has spent 30 years exposing the dark side of criminal justice while indulging a passion for boxing.
Investigative journalist, private detective, teacher, former Freedom of Information commissioner, and licensed professional boxing judge, Thibault comes across as a character from a hard-boiled detective novel written by one of his favorite authors, Raymand Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. A stocky five feet, nine inches in a newly gained 200-pound frame, he speaks in a mean-street drawl and punctuates quips with a toothy grin that he turns on and off like a light.
His personal style fits a reputation for aggressive journalism that the famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey said was like that of "a gunslinger from the Old West, ready to fire at anything that moves — especially if he doesn't take kindly to the movement."
Bailey, whom Thibault met through a mutual friend, made the comment in the [foreword] to a 2002 book of Thibault's columns. The Litchfield crusader took it as compliment. "Like boxing, you've got to punch first," he said.
"He's tenacious as hell," the Doningers' attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, said when asked, adding that Thibault "unearthed material that has been quite helpful in the pursuit of this case."
Not all are fans, and he's earned quite a few critics from his take-no-prisoners advocacy and writing. One of them, longtime Litchfield resident and history maven Lynne Brickley, who has tangled with Thibault over historic district issues, said, "I think he stretches the boundaries of journalism, and does more harm than good for the cause of freedom of speech."
Thibault, who says "I enjoy resistance," shrugs off such comments.
His critics also score him as much for poor taste and unfair mockery as content, such as the time his blog linked to a cartoon portraying a Litchfield official as a dominatrix in a Nazi uniform. "Taste is irrelevant," Thibault responded. "You have yours, I have mine and someone else has theirs. No one should have control over that."
Thibault's reputation as dragon slayer and rights champion is his most visible side, but it is not the whole story. He has softer pursuits, such as a lifelong love of books, not only as literature but as sacred objects. "You can steal my furniture, but bend a book's spine and I won't like you." Along with service on various boards, he teaches English at Western Connecticut State University and a blogging class at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and is chairman of a fund that awards $17,000 annually to young Connecticut writers.
Raised in Uncasville in southeastern Connecticut by working parents, Thibault said he got hooked on journalism while a high school student, covering sports part-time for the local paper. After [majoring in] ... political science ... [at] Boston University, he bounced from reporting to editing jobs around Connecticut, and did a stint at the Washington Times covering the Justice Department.
He and his wife, Lora, a corporate executive in Farmington, bought their home in Litchfield in 1994, because it's "a nice place to raise kids and to walk around." They have two sons, Jake, 20, and Marcus, 15, and Thibault has a 25-year-old son, Luke, by a previous marriage. Kelsley had been an honor student and co-captain of the first girls' soccer team at Litchfield High School before her death a decade ago. After that tragedy, he said, he left full-time employment to "go freelance." Writing for magazines and journals, he hardened his reputation as an investigative journalist with a wild streak, but he has so far avoided having "my legs broken," as one of his journalistic victims threatened.
After he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2005, Thibault abandoned most professional activity to fight the disease, which, he noted, was the same one that killed Tony Snow, the former White House spokesman.
"I'm in remission now, and feel the best I've felt in three years," he said. "Every day is a bonus."
THIBAULT’S MEMORABLE CAMPAIGNS
Andy Thibault has a reputation for biting into an issue and not letting go until it surrenders or dies. Here are some examples:
Late one December night in 1973, Kevin B. Showalter, a 20-year-old college student, was killed by a passing car while fixing a flat tire on a street in New London. The driver didn’t stop, and New London police never made an arrest.
When Thibault joined the Norwich Bulletin in 1975, he was assigned to look into the case, which state police believed had been covered up by local authorities because the prime suspect was a former mayor who was friendly with the judge hearing the case. Despite frequent attempts by Showalter’s mother to get the case re-opened and articles by Thibault naming names, the investigation has been in limbo for more than 30 years.“The case is going nowhere,” he said recently, “but I’ll never give up on it.”
Shortly before Christmas 2001, a Litchfield resident delivered a plastic replica of a black Santa Claus to Town Hall, saying he wanted officials to prove that they were as racially tolerant as they said they were. After two days under the tree, the 3foot Santa was removed. The first selectman at the time, Jerry Zinn, said he was responding to a written complaint from a fellow official that the black Santa was “inappropriate.”
Thibault demanded a copy of the memo, saying that because it was written between officials, it was a public record. The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission agreed, but the case was dropped after it appeared the memo had been destroyed.
Going after a judge
This was one of Thibault’s most controversial campaigns. In 2000, he spearheaded an effort to oust a Superior Court judge who presided over the murder trial of a man who admitted to killing James B. Irwin Jr. of Litchfield in 1995.
After the defendant was acquitted, Thibault testified in Hartford, telling legislators they should not reappoint the judge to a new term on grounds of “incompetence and intemperance.” At the time, Thibault was working part-time for a company owned by the murder victim’s father, prominent Litchfield businessman James B. Irwin Sr. While admitting to lawmakers that he was a friend and employee of Irwin’s, Thibault insisted that “the words are my own, and I am here on my own,” according to the legislative hearing’s transcript.
The judge, David Fineberg, was reappointed and served until his retirement in 2002.
Looking back on the case today, Thibault said he strongly believed the judge mishandled the murder trial, while at the same time “I was supporting a man who was seeking justice for his son.”
— George Krimsky
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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