Category Archives: First Amendment

A journalist fights the power for public information


For more than three and a half years I’ve been fighting to access evidence from a trial that sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms. The defendant in that case—Dr. Paul Volkman, the “Pill Mill Killer,” the “largest physician dispenser of Oxycodone in the US from 2003-2005”—went to college and medical school with my dad, and I’m trying to write a book about him.

Now, it might sound odd that I, or anyone in this country, would have to fight for access to trial evidence that’s already been shown in open court. Doesn’t the Sixth Amendment guarantee all citizens a public trial? Haven’t landmark court decisions established that trial evidence can’t be un-published? And, if all else fails, doesn’t the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) offer transparency insurance? After all, no one administering the law with President Obama’s 2009 “presumption in favor of disclosure” memo in mind would withhold previously published trial evidence, would they?

The answer to each of these questions is “You would think so.” But more than four and a half years after Volkman’s trial ended (the verdict was delivered May 10, 2011, a date tattooed on my brain), the vast majority of the evidence hasn’t been released. Judges, clerks, and prosecutors have all denied my requests. And when I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice in February 2012, the events that ensued were, in the words of MuckRock, a “nightmare.” That’s why—with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU and pro bono attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon Peabody—I’m suing the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a sense, my case revolves around a simple question: can the government seal off a trial—in this case, for reasons related to medical privacy—once the jury has been dismissed and the defendant hauled to prison? I say “No.” The government, apparently, says “Yes.”

And, for now, let’s stick with the theme of simplicity. Because, as this lawsuit trudges on, there’s really only one document you need to see. It’s a 62-page packet filed “for review and consideration by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals” by the Ohio US attorney’s office on February 19, 2013.

In February of 2013, Volkman was fighting to have his conviction overturned, while the Ohio US attorney (the office that had successfully prosecuted him) was fighting to make sure the conviction stuck. With this 62-page packet, prosecutors presented a curated selection—16 exhibits, out of more than 200 shown at trial—of their most powerful evidence. Unlike any of the other trial exhibits, the packet was uploaded to PACER, making it accessible to the public.

That’s worth repeating: by submitting this packet to the appellate court, prosecutors published trial evidence. And they did so with very few redactions. Only a handful of black bars appear in the packet to cover Social Security numbers and birthdays on death certificates, and—curiously—the last name of one of Volkman’s victims (but not three others) on prescription slips and medical-exam reports. Mostly, the trial exhibits are published in their pristine, un-redacted natural state.

Mind you, these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that were withheld or aggressively redacted when I asked the DOJ for them in 2012. And these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that the Rhode Island US attorney (which is handling the lawsuit for the DEA) withheld or aggressively redacted when the office attempted to settle my case with two new “releases” on July 29 and August 31, 2015.

Which brings me to the one thing to remember about my case. Even if you ignore the Sixth Amendment, pro-courtroom-transparency court decisions, and Obama’s “presumption in favor of disclosure” FOIA memo, the government’s stance in this case still doesn’t make any sense. Because, as the 62-page packet from 2013 shows, the government is currently defending a privacy line they’ve already broken.

Four and a half years is a long time to wait for the release of this trial evidence. And I’ve come to view my FOIA case as a symbol of a lot of things: bureaucratic incompetence; Obama-era bullying and intimidation of journalists; and the disturbing fact that the US government, in 2015, can’t live up to some of this country’s founding principles. But, as with so many governmental failures, this is also a story about wasted taxpayer dollars. After receiving my FOIA request in 2012, DEA employees spent untold hours painstakingly redacting pages of trial evidence that had already been shown in open court. (Six hundred seventy-four days passed between my first partial FOIA-response release in May 2013, and my last, in March 2015.) And, right now, it seems there are people in the Rhode Island US attorney’s office working to make sure this previously published evidence (a chunk of which was re-published, in 2013) doesn’t see the light of day.

These are not top-secret documents. This is evidence that sent a man to prison. This is evidence from a case that traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court. This is evidence that was presented in every US citizen’s name, since we were all plaintiffs in “the United States of America vs. Paul Volkman.” Welcome to the “most transparent administration in history.”

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist and former news editor at the now-closed Providence Phoenix. His work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Vice, Salon, Rhode Island Monthly, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Email him at philip dot edward dot eil at gmail dot com and find him on Twitter at @phileil.

Public-records reform: Start with weak tea; add water

Judging from the tone of coverage, it’s hard to tell whether the Massachusetts House’s unanimous approval of public-records reform legislation Wednesday was a step forward or a setback. But it sounds like the already-watery bill under consideration has been diluted still further.

Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and a staunch advocate of reform, is everywhere, telling Andy Metzger of the State House News Service that the bill is “a mixed bag”; lamenting in an article by Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, “My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities”; and describing the legislation as “one step forward and one step back” in an article by Shira Schoenberg of

The problem is that even though Massachusetts’ public-records law is among the worst in the country (the Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state an “F” for public access to information), the bill passed by the House both giveth and taketh away. Here’s Wallack:

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records….

But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

The bill also continues to exempt the governor’s office, the judiciary and the Legislature itself from the provisions of the law. A commission is going to study that — although, needless to say, it would be a major surprise if we ever heard about it again.

The only hope now is that the Senate will strengthen the legislation when it comes up for consideration early next year. The danger is that Gov. Charlie Baker will sign a weak bill into law, officials will pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and meaningful reform will be put off for another generation.

There’s nothing unusual about contempt for journalism

This may surprise you, but I think my fellow First Amendment advocates are overreacting to the video of University of Missouri professor Melissa Click going off on Mark Schierbecker, who was shooting video of protesters confronting Tim Tai, a student photographer who bravely stood his ground in the face of intimidation.

Click has come under fire for yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”

My lack of apoplectic outrage does not derive from support for Click’s actions; far from it. Rather, my views are based on what appear to be Click’s ordinary — as opposed to extraordinary — contempt for the role of journalism in documenting public events.

Part of the anger directed toward Click comes from earlier, erroneous reports that she is a journalism professor. In fact, she is an assistant professor of mass media in Mizzou’s communication program, and she has produced numerous academic articles about pop culture. For instance, here is the title of a 2013 journal article she co-authored: “Making Monsters: Lady Gaga, Fan Identification, and Social Media.” She earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Communication at UMass Amherst.

(I also see that she has some sort of affiliation with Mizzou’s School of Journalism. But based on the bio I’ve linked to above, which includes her C.V., it does not appear that she teaches any journalism classes. I hope not.) [Update from the comments: Click’s “courtesy appointment” in the j-school is being reviewed.]

I’m also not moved by the argument that, as an employee of a public university, she was legally obligated to protect Schierbecker’s First Amendment rights. I’d argue instead that she was exercising her own First Amendment rights, and that the threat implicit in her “muscle” comment hardly rises to the level of incitement.

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of Click’s outburst is that a fortysomething professor would become so emotionally involved in a student protest. But I’m not here to psychoanalyze her.

If Click were a journalism professor, I’d join with those saying she should be fired. As it stands, though, I think an apology would be sufficient.

The heat is on (again) to reform the state’s public-records law

Photo of the Massachusetts Statehouse (cc) by Tony Fischer.

Photo of the Massachusetts Statehouse (cc) by Tony Fischer.

Remember those golden days of last spring, when it looked like the Massachusetts Legislature might actually take some steps to fix the state’s broken public-records law? The effort was derailed, unfortunately, as opponents — including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a lobbying organization for the state’s 351 cities and towns — argued that the proposed changes amounted to an unfunded mandate.

Now advocates for open government are gearing up again. The Boston Globe has been especially strong the past few days, reporting that the State Police have been fighting against reform for undisclosed reasons (secret reasons for preserving secrets?) and that the Center for Public Integrity has once again awarded the state an “F” for its current public-records law, once of the worst in the country. (Here’s the report card.) The paper editorialized in favor of passage as well.

The Boston Herald published a strong editorial on Oct. 24 (which makes mention of the State Police’s opposition) and an Associated Press story on Oct. 31.

The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, among the largest of GateHouse Media’s more than 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, had this to say in an editorial posted over the weekend:

If there are good arguments against making public records more easily available to the public, let’s bring them out of the legislators’ private offices and debate them on the floor of the House and the Senate. It’s time legislative leaders keep their promises and bring public records reform up for a vote.

The Gloucester Times, part of the CNHI-owned Eagle-Tribune group in the northeast part of the state, editorialized in favor of reform last week.

Needless to say, reform is long overdue. It’s long past time for the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to fulfill their promises for more transparent government in Massachusetts.

Holding campus police departments accountable

Photo (cc) by xx. Some rights reserved.

Photo (cc) by jakubsabata. Some rights reserved.

Should police reports at private colleges and universities be considered public records in the same way that those at public colleges and in cities and towns are? You would think so. After all, as Shawn Musgrave reports for the public-records website MuckRock:

Sworn campus police may carry weapons, make arrests and use force, just like any other officer. Statute grants special state police “the same power to make arrests as regular police officers” for crimes committed on property owned or used by their institutions. Particularly in Boston, campus borders are difficult to trace, and some of the most populous areas lie within university police jurisdiction.

Yet because police departments at private institutions of higher learning are non-governmental agencies, they are not subject to the state’s notoriously weak public-records law, which requires police departments to show its log of incidents and arrests to any member of the public upon request.

Campus police departments do not operate entirely in the dark — as Musgrave notes, they must make certain records public under the federal Clery Act. And he found that many departments provided their logs when he asked for them. But privately employed police officers exercise the same powers as those working for the public, and they should be subject to the same disclosure laws.

Musgrave’s report, posted on Sept. 15, has been gathering steam. Today his story is on the front page of The Boston Globe, which has long had a relationship with MuckRock. Earlier it was flagged by Boston magazine and by

As Musgrave reports, state Rep. Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would bring campus police departments and other privately employed police officers under the umbrella of the public records law. It’s a bill that has failed several times previously. But perhaps increased public scrutiny will lead to a better result.

Muzzle Awards follow-up: Two victories for free speech

awardAmong the New England Muzzle Award recipients I recognized last month at were Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, for backing a ridiculous 70-year-old state law that banned political lying, and New Hampshire State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a leader in the effort to outlaw the scourge of so-called ballot selfies.

This month, the courts agreed on both fronts.

According to Zack Huffman of Courthouse News Service, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the anti-lying statute, with Justice Robert Cordy writing:

We conclude that [the statute] cannot be limited to the criminalization of fraudulent or defamatory speech, is neither necessary nor narrowly tailored to advancing the commonwealth’s interest in fair and free elections, and chills the very exchange of ideas that gives meaning to our electoral system.

It is now safe for the presidential candidates to campaign in Massachusetts.

In New Hampshire, U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro ruled that the ban on posting photos of a marked ballot could not be justified even though it was supposedly designed to eliminate bribery, with the selfie providing the proof needed that the person taking the bribe had voted as instructed.

The problem, Barbadoro noted, was that such fraud had not actually taken place in at least the past 100 years. In addition, Barbadoro ruled that the law “deprives voters of one of their most powerful means of letting the world know how they voted,” according to an account of the decision by Jeremy Blackman of the Concord Monitor.

The moral of these stories: Do not mess with the Muzzles.

WGBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch.

Also published at

Guest commentary: Reform public-records law now

The following statement was released Monday by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a network of more than 40 groups committed to reforming the state public records law, today commended Gov. Charlie Baker for issuing guidance to improve state executive agencies’ handling of requests for information, but emphasized that significant changes to the law itself are still needed to achieve broad, enforceable access to public information throughout the Commonwealth.

Responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials, Baker last Thursday issued a memorandum to cabinet secretaries providing guidance on how to “reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility.” The memo directs agencies to designate a records access officer to help streamline requests, to standardize fees for copying and staff time, and to set expectations for agency response time. The guidance applies only to state executive agencies, not municipalities, independent agencies, or other entities subject to the public records law.

MassFOIA commended the governor’s action but simultaneously called for legislative reform.

“We applaud Gov. Baker for providing leadership and direction to improve access to public information,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But even the best-intended administrative guidance is inherently limited. It doesn’t have the force of law and it won’t have any impact on access at the municipal level.”

“The governor deserves credit for taking this step,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, “but we also need legislation to fix the law itself and ensure real accountability. Otherwise, Massachusetts will keep getting failing grades and officials will continue to treat freedom of information as a suggestion instead of a public right.”

Several of the provisions outlined in Baker’s memo may increase timely and affordable access, but they set no firm deadlines for complying with requests or overall limits on the amount of money that agencies can charge to provide information the public has a right to obtain.

“Even under this guidance, agencies can — and in all probability will — continue to charge a fortune for requests that they perceive as complex,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Time and again we’ve seen Massachusetts agencies demand huge fees when other states turn over the same information for a fraction of the cost. While this guidance is a step in the right direction, it won’t prevent abuses of the law.”

“One of the most important reforms is attorney’s fees for those wrongly denied public records, and that cannot be established by the governor,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “That takes legislation. We’re pushing for a vote on a strong comprehensive bill in the legislature in September.” Forty-seven other states provide attorney’s fees to hold officials accountable when they refuse to follow the law.

The state public records law grants the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

In July, the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight gave the nod to a bill supported by MassFOIA, which is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information. It would also help government officials fielding public records requests by allowing them additional time for compliance and the ability to ask for other accommodations in “exceptional circumstances.” Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to vote on public records reform legislation in the fall.

The proposed legislation aims to improve access to information the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, including those for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records and trade secrets. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.
  • Extend the time for compliance from 10 to 15 days.
  • Allow record-keepers to obtain more time or the ability to charge special fees when responding to frequent or unusually large requests.