It’s a news story, and a surprise


We report this morning that, for nearly a year, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) and a Chilmark couple have been trying to settle a boundary dispute. The land in question is part of a larger parcel given to the private, nonprofit conservation organization.

Sheriff’s Meadow has asked the Land Court to bar husband and wife Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter, the claimants, from any further clearing of the property, use, or building on it. SMF wants the court to decide, once and for all, who owns it.

On August 9, the court granted the conservation organization a temporary restraining order. Today, SMF will ask for a permanent restraining order until the question of ownership is settled.

The argument between SMF and Mr. Ramsey and his wife was a private argument until this week.

Boundary disputes are common enough, but Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter brought the fight to light, in advance of legal action brought by SMF in the Land Court, using social media and efforts to publish online comments and in-print Letters to the Editor on and in the print edition of the newspaper, and perhaps elsewhere.

As Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman reports this morning, the couple used website posts under the title, “Youth lots vs. tax breaks,” to characterize their opponents in the harshest terms. They have struck back at abutting property owners — “Perhaps if we’d bought the land for a million dollars they would want to be our friends?” — and invoked the fight for affordable housing, “All we want is a place to call home, to pay taxes to the town, to raise a family, and be part of the community.”

The couple likened Sheriff’s Meadow to a corporation using unseemly tactics to acquire and protect land. “Big conservation speaks from huge egos, through expensive lawyers, to bully and intimidate their opposition with costly lawsuits and lengthy court battles,” Ms. Counter wrote.

MVTimes did not allow the comment. The couple offered the same information in a proposed Letter to the Editor, which the newspaper has not published. A variety of other communications from supporters of the couple’s position urged the newspaper to publish the charges that were part of the offered letters and comments.

Social media is a powerful tool for fun and communication. In some respects, it’s the freest sort of free expression. It can make important social contributions. It can incite and support revolutionary impulses in pursuit of political freedom. It can fuel riotous, larcenous, and violent behavior. It can spread news and information like wildfire. It can enhance reputations and damage them. It is in many important ways a welcome and useful tool for newspapers and websites, like, that want to be important to readers and visitors.

Social media is also, as was the case with this story, a source of information that often requires a responsible newspaper or associated website to examine before publishing. Some stories are not, first of all, Letters to the Editor or posted Comments. Instead, they require a reporter’s inquiries and the examination, evaluation, and review of pertinent documents.

And, as is the case here, the result is an important public issue that becomes a reliable published report.