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Tina Renna (@UCWAtchdog)
Tina Renna (@UCWAtchdog)
Many many moons ago, when the land was young (June 2011), I told you about a New Jersey Supreme Court decision which many in the press had misinterpreted as denying the protections of the press shield to all bloggers at all times. I insisted, then, that some bloggers would be able under that ruling to refuse to reveal their confidential sources to law enforcement, but just that the claimant in that case wasn't acting in a sufficiently "journalistic" mode to qualify.

And I was right.

That's Tina Renna in the picture. She's the primary writer and editor of a blog entitled "The County Watchers," which is hosted on the website of the Union County Watchdog Association (UCWA), a 501(c)(3) she runs, which reports on "alleged waste, corruption, and mismanagement in Union County, N.J." In other words, she may be a conservative whackadoodle, and at least she's not a Democrat, but I don't know and don't much care: If she's practicing journalism she ought to be protected like one, even if she's playing for the other team.

Anyway, Renna wrote two blog posts on the alleged misuse of county-owned generators by county employees during Hurricane Sandy and also concerning the subsequent Union County Prosecutor's investigation. In those posts, she suggested she knew the names of 16 county employees who had done so:

I believe I know most if not all of the names of employees who are alleged to have taken home generators, including the county police who are charged with investigating chain saws that were taken about a year ago. That investigation involving a freeholder’s son is being allowed to drag on. It isn’t just three employees involved in generatorgate, with permission from their boss, as the county would like us to believe.
The local prosecutors asked her to come in; she didn't. They sent her a grand jury subpoena compelling her to testify concerning her knowledge; she moved to quash it. Read more about the court's decision below the fold.

And, last week, after a two-day hearing, she won. Here's the decision, and the news article from which I learned about the case. Basically, Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy decided in applying the test from the earlier case, some bloggers are journalists, and others may not be (it's a diarist vs. commenter divide, kinda), and you just need to look at the facts. On the one hand, as Renna's attorney, Bruce Rosen explained:

[T]he Court should consider the original content and newsworthiness of the posts on the County Watcher's blog. These original stories include, "Generatorgate", the County's inability to account for funds spent at an annual summer concert event called "MusicFest," the County's granting of permission for an employee who is also the Union County Democratic Chair to work from home, alleged pension padding when a previously part-time county employee retired three months after becoming a full-time employee, the purchase of an expensive navigation system for county vehicles which included European driving directions, and the alleged theft of a county owned chain saw by a former freeholder's step-son. He further argues that Renna's writing is similar to Maureen Dowd or Paul Mulshine in that she engages in original investigative journalism. In addition, he asserts that many traditional news media sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, often demonstrate a political bias, yet they nonetheless fall squarely within the protections of the Shield Statute as television news stations.
Of course. But maybe the prosecutors have a case:
They point to the following as evidence that Ms. Renna should not be considered a journalist: (1) Ms. Renna's use of profanities in her written blog and on videos posted on her site, (2) Ms. Renna's failure to publicly identify herself as a journalist, (3) Ms. Renna's frequent self-identification as a "watchdog" and "citizen activist," (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog, (5) a single instance of plagiarism, (6) Mrs. Renna's failure to issue corrections or to indicate when content in the blog has been changed or modified, (7) alleged bias from Ms. Renna's husband's county employment termination and his subsequent freeholder candidacy, (8) Mrs. Renna's participation in local politics as a Republican Committee person in Cranford, and finally (8) Ms. Renna's failure to disclose such alleged bias to her readers....

For example, when questioning Ms. Renna about a post she authored criticizing the County for permitting the chair of the Union County Improvement Authority, Charlotte DeFilippo, to work from home and the employee's handicapped parking tags, Ms. Renna did not investigate whether Ms. DeFilippo had a medical reason necessitating the handicapped tags and the permission to work from home. Furthermore, they argue that her blog posts often devolve into personal attacks on county elected officials such as Freeholder Daniel Sullivan, Union County Democratic Chair Charlotte DeFilippo, and the Union County Director of Communications Sebastian D'Elia....

The State further argues that under the second statutory factor, the Watchdog Association's purpose, is not to gather and disseminate news, but rather to advocate for political change and to increase transparency and participation in government. Moreover, the State asserts that the County Watchers Blog is more akin to a public relations entity that functions for the primary purpose of publicizing and raising funds for the UCWA's activities and under Napp the privilege should not apply. This purpose, the State argues, is evident from the bias of the blog posts, the fact that the bloggers do not contact county elected officials for comments, Mrs. Renna's profanity laden/inappropriate outbursts at freeholder meetings, the UCWA's mission statement, and the fact that the blog posts do not distinguish between advocacy, opinion, and reporting.

Guess what? She's totally still a journalist, as the Court explains:
In reviewing Ms. Renna's website, blog, and her numerous blog posts, it is clear that Ms. Renna and her two or three other bloggers do in fact author posts about alleged occurrences and issues related to Union County governance and politics not covered by other media sources. As pointed out during argument, most local publications no longer provide in-depth coverage of county news. Local newspapers and on-line publications show a lack of detail on, for example, freeholder meetings and actions taken by county government. Moreover, while the quality of Renna's writing is not akin to that of a print news reporter, or professional blogger such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report or Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, the Supreme Court in Too Much Media made clear that a claimant need not be a professional to obtain protection under the privilege. While, it is also evident that Ms. Renna's posts often devolve into ad hominem attacks characterizing county employees as "psychopaths" and "Nazis," prior to this point, the courts have not limited the protection to claimants who consistently and exclusively author newsworthy writings, or only to those who uphold certain journalistic standards in their writing and conduct.
(They were Nazis, dude?) Was it done for a news-gathering/making purpose, even though she's totally biased? Heck yes:
Being a reporter and citizen watchdog are not mutually exclusive. In addition, the State cites to no cases or governing law which require that a news entity be unbiased in order to meet this second factor. In fact, many national publications such as The Weekly Standard (conservative) and The New Republic (liberal) have a point of view, yet are considered mainstream publications employing journalists to report on newsworthy events despite their ideological bent.
And so that's it. She wins. Subpoena goes bye-bye. Good day for online journalism.

To learn more about shield laws in your state, go here.

Originally posted to Adam B on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 01:43 PM PDT.

Also republished by Discussing The Law: TalkLeft's View On Law and Politics and Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So...that means we're going to get paid (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreenMother, commonmass, ColoTim, rebel ga

    any day now, right? ;)

    Too many in this country feel the Constitution should include the 2nd Amendment. And nothing else.

    by blueoregon on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 02:08:47 PM PDT

  •  It's good to read this. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Adam B, commonmass, ColoTim, dadadata

    As far as all the things alleged to not make her a journalist, I can say, that every one of those characteristics or flaws can be found in professional journalism, including the use of profanity. It really depends on the publication, when it comes to use of slang and profanity.

    •  heh, especially this one: (0+ / 0-)
      spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog
      Ask any professional copyeditor or proofreader about journalists' ability to spell, punctuate, or use correct grammar.

      I mean, that is exactly why copyediting and proofreading jobs exist in the first place.

      Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

      by Youffraita on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 01:37:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Well, IF that were a factor, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, ColoTim
    (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog
    Every online newspaper and blog would be guilty of #4.
  •  Committing acts of journalism (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rebel ga, Simplify

    Ultimately, the test needs to be whether someone is engaging in acts of journalism - regardless of how the person, or entity, describes itself.

    Consider Marcy Wheeler, for instance, and her reporting about sophisticated legal issues.  Consider the morning infotainment shows that refer to themselves as "morning news" programs.

    The issue is not whether the person is employed as a "journalist" or acting as a "blogger" as much as it is whether the person is engaged in journalism.

    sláinte,
    cl
    -- Religion is like sodomy: both can be harmless when practiced between consenting adults but neither should be imposed upon children.

    by Caoimhin Laochdha on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 04:08:39 PM PDT

    •  And then when you compare to (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Caoimhin Laochdha

      the standards in the case:

      He further argues that Renna's writing is similar to Maureen Dowd or Paul Mulshine in that she engages in original investigative journalism.
      Maurine Dowd, investigative journalist? Ah, hahahahaha...
      Moreover, while the quality of Renna's writing is not akin to that of a print news reporter, or professional blogger such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report or Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post,
      Matt Drudge, quality? Haha, ow, you're hurting me!

      Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

      by Simplify on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:26:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Much appreciated, Adam. (0+ / 0-)

    As for this load of fresh manure:

    They point to the following as evidence that Ms. Renna should not be considered a journalist: (1) Ms. Renna's use of profanities in her written blog and on videos posted on her site, (2) Ms. Renna's failure to publicly identify herself as a journalist, (3) Ms. Renna's frequent self-identification as a "watchdog" and "citizen activist," (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog, (5) a single instance of plagiarism, (6) Mrs. Renna's failure to issue corrections or to indicate when content in the blog has been changed or modified, (7) alleged bias from Ms. Renna's husband's county employment termination and his subsequent freeholder candidacy, (8) Mrs. Renna's participation in local politics as a Republican Committee person in Cranford, and finally (8) Ms. Renna's failure to disclose such alleged bias to her readers....
    1. There's no law anywhere saying a journalist can't cuss in print. It's kind of a convention merely. An every journalist I know (and I work in the field) has been known to cuss.

    In case ya don't believe me, I think we can find some cuss words in some of Molly Ivins'  books.

    2. That's a stupid argument. They're paying their lawyers too much. Why don't they cut to the chase and demand a diploma from, say, Northwestern? "Journalist" is merely a handy label for reporters, fotogs, editors, and others. I could as easily demand that only people who cover the soul-destroying county and town government meetings are legitimate "journalists" ...

    3. These are not mutually exclusive categories. Beyond that, our rather generic web publishing program has an assortment of about 20 flags for articles. Like "breaking" or "feature." One of them is ... Yes ... watchdog.

    4. This contention is best answered with a common two word Anglo-Saxon obscenity. Like they know jack about this topic.

    5. Obviously they don't read the NY Times.

    6. Quite a few newspapers don't do that anymore. Guess all the employees aren't working in the news business.

    7. Don't care.

    8. Not a journalistic best practice, but I have some local newspapers from the late 1850s for them to read. Pro and anti-slavery. Whig and Democrat and whatnot. Each one owned by a local, prominent ... LAWYER.

    9. You can be a journalist with a bias. It's best to disclose. It's not mandatory. And it's even more damaging when you proclaim you're ... Fair and Balanced.

    Beyond which, readers are not dumb. They can detect bias.

    If that's the best these lawyers could do, I pity their future clients.

    Thump! Bang. Whack-boing. It's dub!

    by dadadata on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:00:30 PM PDT

  •  If every gun owner in this country is part of a (0+ / 0-)

    well regulated Militia then a blogger should be considered a journalist.


    Past --------------------------------^-------------------------------- Future
    The middle class was just a speed bump for the Plutocratic Overlords

    by Fruitaholic on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 06:05:55 PM PDT

  •  i worked for law firms,twice;newspapers,twice. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlueJessamine

    Reading Law can be riveting excitement with fascinating anecdotal adventure. Yes, the humdrum is plentiful. But when the Law is alive and searching for precedent, with its full history applicable to consider or cite, it can be most amazing, with a wonderment of surprises.
    And, when we had more muckrakers active and supported, they contributed too. People would love it if revelations had consequences, for perpetrators, not whistle blowers.

    Monsanto is poison,gotta be stopped. Can't afford rich people anymore;must cut back. People like Dick Cheney are evil, don't belong in government. We need @ 9 different revolutions in this country, and may they all crossoverlap soon..

    by renzo capetti on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 06:06:01 PM PDT

  •  This, is amusing: (8+ / 0-)
    They point to the following as evidence that Ms. Renna should not be considered a journalist: (1) Ms. Renna's use of profanities in her written blog and on videos posted on her site, (2) Ms. Renna's failure to publicly identify herself as a journalist, (3) Ms. Renna's frequent self-identification as a "watchdog" and "citizen activist," (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog, (5) a single instance of plagiarism, (6) Mrs. Renna's failure to issue corrections or to indicate when content in the blog has been changed or modified, (7) alleged bias from Ms. Renna's husband's county employment termination and his subsequent freeholder candidacy, (8) Mrs. Renna's participation in local politics as a Republican Committee person in Cranford, and finally (8) Ms. Renna's failure to disclose such alleged bias to her readers....
    How about we apply that prosecutors test to Fox News, or even CNN?

    If this were the standard by which one was judged to be a journalist, it would come as a shock to a great many.

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    Who is twigg?

    by twigg on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:24:38 PM PDT

  •  If these were factors in determining whether (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brown Thrasher, elginblt

    ...someone was a jounalist:

    They point to the following as evidence that Ms. Renna should not be considered a journalist: (1) Ms. Renna's use of profanities in her written blog and on videos posted on her site, (2) Ms. Renna's failure to publicly identify herself as a journalist, (3) Ms. Renna's frequent self-identification as a "watchdog" and "citizen activist," (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog, (5) a single instance of plagiarism, (6) Mrs. Renna's failure to issue corrections or to indicate when content in the blog has been changed or modified, (7) alleged bias from Ms. Renna's husband's county employment termination and his subsequent freeholder candidacy, (8) Mrs. Renna's participation in local politics as a Republican Committee person in Cranford, and finally (8) Ms. Renna's failure to disclose such alleged bias to her readers....
    then many, many mainstream news organizations do not have journalists working for them.

    "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions." - Thomas Jefferson

    by rfall on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:37:14 PM PDT

  •  Now can they please rule that CNN and Fox... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rfall, jwinIL14, Brown Thrasher

    Are NOT journalists?  The Boston and West, TX tragedies pretty much proved it.

  •  It's good to be right. Kudos Adam B. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ChadmanFL

    rabble rabble rabble

    by jwinIL14 on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:38:04 PM PDT

  •  NO F'ING KIDDING! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ChadmanFL, jwinIL14, Brown Thrasher
    Being a reporter and citizen watchdog are not mutually exclusive.

    "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions." - Thomas Jefferson

    by rfall on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:38:41 PM PDT

  •  So she can make a statement that (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mailman27, Mgleaf, MrLiberal, merrily1000

    reflects on the ethics/legality of behavior of 16 employees  and doesn't have to back it up with anything whatsoever?  I find this troubling.  

    •  They can sue her for defamation, of course. (2+ / 0-)

      But this question is whether the government can force her to give up her sources.

      •  Exactly. She can name sources who wish to (0+ / 0-)

        Be named. Or run the risk of losing a suit. It's the check and balance part of the game.

        Thump! Bang. Whack-boing. It's dub!

        by dadadata on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 04:19:13 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  As RCFP explains (0+ / 0-)

          "Courts are likely to take one of several approaches in attempting to balance the rights and interests of a defamation plaintiff with those of a reporter":

          Most often, the judge will simply preclude the journalist from relying on the anonymous source for any part of his or her defense. This prohibition includes a bar on merely telling the judge or jury that the reporter did in fact have sources for the information.

          Courts may also allow media defendants to offer evidence that supports a confidential source’s credibility without revealing its identity. This evidence, however, can only be offered to show a publisher’s state of mind and not to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

          Moreover, some courts have held that the introduction of such evidence waives a reporter’s privilege to refuse to disclose the identity of sources, even when the journalist can claim a very strong privilege under the state’s shield law.

          Some judges will assume at the outset of the proceeding, and instruct juries deliberating the case to presume likewise, that there was no source for the information attributed to an anonymous source.
          In the worst-case scenario, a court could issue a default judgment against an author or publisher who refused to reveal a confidential source.

    •  if you own a press, you can say (0+ / 0-)

      anything you want.  There may be consequences, like being sued for various things,  but you got the machine and the liberty.  Stand on the corner,  hand out the damn papers to passersby.

      These days,  of course,  everyone has a press,  or at least what counts,  access to one,  via the Internet and media technology.  Hell,  be there with a cell phone with a data link and you are almost a live photojournalist.  Put it on YouTube, off you go.  This is actually unprecedented;  wide open spaces of opportunity.  

      I like the concept "citizen-journalist" because really,  anyone ought to be able to play.  But I think it starts in each citizen's mind, the sense of being a journalist, an observer of and reporter on, stuff of significance.
        Yes, there will be a lot of chaff.  The Grain will be worth it.

      don't always believe what you think

      by claude on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 07:30:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  she certainly is recognizable /nt (0+ / 0-)

    Warning - some snark above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 GOP Rep. Steve Stockman (TX):"If babies had guns, they wouldn't be aborted"

    by annieli on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 06:59:11 PM PDT

  •  Small complaint... (0+ / 0-)

    This appeared on the Daily Kos front page today (Saturday). But when I clicked on it, it's dated Thursday. I guess I missed it on Thursday. Then I was away from my computer Friday night (at my girlfriend's house after she got back from ten days in Europe) and most of Saturday (because I had to work until 7 pm).

    No problem. I'm glad it was republished two days later.

    But, goddammit, there are a bunch of great comments dated Thursday, when it was originally published, and I can't rec any of them!

    ---

    Great story, by the way. Tipped and rec'd (because those options still work two days later, apparently).

    I'm a big fan of freedom of speech and freedom of the press -- for everyone, even Republicans and fundamentalists and Communists and Nazis and Westboro Baptist. Bloggers, too.

    But DKos needs to work on the freedom to rec. LOL.

    "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

    by Dbug on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 07:52:33 PM PDT

  •  I'm a bit confused. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    merrily1000

    Is she saying she has pertinent information on what sounds like 16 counts of grand theft, but refuses to testify against the thieves for some reason?  Or is she just passing along hearsay?

  •  she knew the names... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrLiberal, merrily1000

    If it was such an outrage, why wouldn't she be happy to divulge each and every one?  What, she's giving cover to Nazis?

    the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity

    by mailman27 on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 08:23:23 PM PDT

  •  I am friends with the Rennas (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Adam B

    & worked for them in their graphics &  publications business for about a year.  I have a high regard for them as family people.  When I worked for them, Joe Renna was taking a lot of business from local Democratic governments & organizations. The Union County Democratic organization is a machine. There is no other way to describe it. In terms of progressive public services, this is a pretty good county, so you live with it.  My dad was quite active in the Union County Republican organization when the Republicans still won county-wide elections & the Union County Courthouse was up for grabs in November.  He had to cooperate with some Republicans ( generally Tom Kean type moderates in those days) I considered pretty shady, & did so without compromising his own integrity. That was the game. You play it or gather up your marbles & leave.

    I doubt the Rennas & I agree on much anymore. They seem much more ideologically right wing  now than they were 12 years ago.  Yes, it is easy to suspect there's something "personal" about their motives.  If there were two Republicans on the freeholder board, or the local paper, the Star-Ledger, had a couple of good reporters assigned permanently to the County Courthouse, Tina probably wouldn't need to do what she does. When the prosecutor came for her, I immediately sided with her.  The same thing could happen in a county where the Republicans controlled everything.  & we do have Republican scandals here in Jersey.

    "There ain't no sanity clause." Chico Marx

    by DJ Rix on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 08:55:50 PM PDT

  •  Did she assert under oath that she promised her (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    merrily1000

    'sources' confidentiality? If she didn't she must talk.
    If there were no sources, she is risking perjury.
    Most journalists have do it for money and submit their stories to an editor for review. Obviously that doesn't hold for a lone nutjob blogger.
    This is like mailing anonymous letters to the prosecutor
    with a return address on it and claiming confidentiality.

  •  Me Too (0+ / 0-)

    I wondered exactly that:

    I agree that Winter should be able to protect an anonymous source. But the real problem is what defines a "journalist" who should be shielded? Where's the line?

    Fox isn't really a journalism organization, but it's close enough. The NY Times is a shabby corporatist propaganda rag, too, but it's among the closest to what we consider legitimate journalism. But what about bloggers? Is Meteor Blades a shieldable journalist?

    If MB posted a story in DailyKos reporting that a Colorado uranium mill was polluting the countryside, quoting an anonymous worker there with firsthand experience of dumping, would a court prosecuting the operator be entitled to compell MB to reveal the worker's identity for a subpoena? What if MB were posting in his own blog? What if James O'Keefe or any other hack we hate did? What if Tucker Carlson reported that story (suppose because Obama owns the mill) in the NYT?

    Given the right to free speech includes the right not to speak, and the right not to self incriminate, how can a court put any of us in jail to compel us to reveal who told us what, or anything we wish to remain silent on?

    Maybe we should shield any speech from compelled revealing of its sources, if the speaker can defend it as truth. If it's true, why should anyone have to reveal who told them?

    Now we've heard a judge decide some of those who are, or sometimes when some people are.

    I wonder who the first to fail to get that shield will be, and why.

    "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

    by DocGonzo on Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 10:10:16 PM PDT

  •  Prosecutions Comments Remind me of Beck/O'Reilly/H (0+ / 0-)

    Seriously. While reading the prosecution's silly laundry list, all I could think of was, what a perfect description of how Glenn Beck and his ilk "report the news". Yet I doubt if they would be accused of not being journalists. Sadly.

    "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there." “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” --Yogi Berra

    by HeartlandLiberal on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 05:01:28 AM PDT

  •  New Jersey judge - Bloggers R Journalists (0+ / 0-)

    Well saind Adam B.

  •  That must be Tiny Fey playing a blogger. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 06:14:17 AM PDT

  •  The New Republic is liberal? (0+ / 0-)

    I take issue with the example cited in the court's opinion of The New Republic as the liberal counterweight to the Weekly Standard.

    This shows just how much debate in this country has skewed to the right.  

    I'm not as negative about The New Republic as many in here are, I subscribe.  But it is center-left at best, not liberal.  For many of the Peretz years it was center-right.  

    Sigh.  

  •  Holy crap that is my county. (0+ / 0-)

    How did I not know about this blog? It's nice to see someone on the corruption beat now that the Star Ledger and Bergen Record are shells of their former selves.

    Now I just need to know whether or not she calls it Taylor Ham or pork roll before I decide if she has anything worthwhile to say.

    "Buying Horizon Milk to support organic farming is like purchasing an English muffin in an effort to prop up the British economy." -Windowdog

    by Windowdog on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 12:47:05 PM PDT

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