Tag Archives: New England First Amendment Coalition

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.

 

Cities and towns seek to derail public-records reform

A serious attempt to reform the state’s broken public-records law — the shortcomings of which I described recently in the WGBH News Muzzle Awards — is on the verge of being derailed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), according to advocates.

On Friday came word that the state Legislature was likely to pass the long-awaited reform bill, House 2772, according to The Boston Globe and State House News Service. The bill, though not perfect, includes key provisions to hit noncompliant government agencies with lawyers’ fees and to limit how much those agencies can charge for complying with public-records requests.

Now comes word that the municipal association, a lobbying group for the state’s cities and towns, is working to prevent final passage. Here is a statement sent out by the MMA in which the bill is denounced as an “unfunded mandate” that could be used to “harass” local officials.

The following is an email sent to me by Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Hi Folks,

It is do or die time for MassFOIA, because our public records bill, which was on the move, is now under aggressive attack.

As of yesterday, the plan was for a House vote on our public records bill next Weds, with a Senate vote the following week. Now, the MMA is fighting back with everything they have [a reference to the document linked above] and we need to do the same or the bill may be dead.  In fact, it appears the House has cancelled their formal session for next week so our reform efforts are in mortal danger. If they kill the bill now, it will be all the more difficult to revive.

So, please:

1) Write to your members to get them to call or email their legislators. I’ve attached an email that Pam wrote to Common Cause members this morning. [Note: I have not included the attachment.]

2) Stay tuned as we develop materials over the weekend and early next week that you may need to sign onto — such as a coalition letter. We will need a quick turn around.

3) Keep your eyes open for updated talking points over the weekend.

Thanks for your support of this critical issue!

Best,

Gavi Wolfe, ACLU of Massachusetts
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
Bob Ambrogi, MA Newspaper Publishers Association
Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition

Journalists, advocates back public-records reform

Journalists, political figures and others testified on Beacon Hill Tuesday in favor of legislation that would strengthen the state’s public-records law. Joshua Miller covers the story for The Boston Globe. In March, the School of Journalism faculty at Northeastern University called for public records reform. Below is a press release on Tuesday’s hearing from the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The New England First Amendment Coalition testified Tuesday in support of legislation that would improve access to public records in Massachusetts. Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, spoke to a state legislative committee on behalf of the coalition, describing a lack of access to records and a strong need for reform.

“The ability to gather news and inform communities, to understand government and engage with elected leaders, is essential to the democratic process,” Silverman said. “Yet in my role as executive director I regularly speak with journalists and community members from throughout the state who are frustrated at the inability to obtain information about their government, information that is public by law but in reality is unobtainable and essentially secret.”

The Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight provided the hearing to allow testimony on House Bill 2772 and Senate Bill 1676. The legislation would eliminate technological and administrative barriers to the enforcement of the public records statute. It would also update the law to reflect advances in technology, require state agencies to have a “point person” to handle records requests, reduce fees for obtaining public records, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.

“With this legislation, for example, the concerned father who is getting the runaround from school officials over policies affecting his children will have a designated point-person to help fulfill his request,” Silverman said. “That same parent won’t be charged hundreds of dollars in copying costs when electronic files of those policies exist. The journalist from a small suburban newspaper who successfully appealed a denial of records but still hasn’t received those records can use the attorneys’ fees provision to help find a lawyer to litigate on his behalf.”

NEFAC’s full testimony can be read here. More information on the legislation and the coalition’s work as a leading member of the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance — a group formed specifically to advocate for public records reform — can be read here.

Northeastern j-school faculty calls for public-records reform

The state’s weak public-records law has long needed to be reformed. A lack of meaningful penalties for government agencies that refuse to turn over public records, outrageous fees and other problems make Massachusetts a laggard when it comes to transparency. Several years ago the State Integrity Investigation awarded Massachusetts a richly deserved “F” on public access to information.

Last week brought mind-boggling news from Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, who reported that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has issued rulings allowing certain formerly public records to be suppressed, including arrest reports of police officers charged with drunken driving. (Galvin later turned around and called for an initiative petition to put some teeth in the public-records law. Make of that what you will.)

Now the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media Massachusetts have editorialized in favor of significant reform. The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a group comprising the New England First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and others, is calling for immediate action.

Seventeen of my colleagues and I at Northeastern’s School of Journalism lent our voices to the cause this week with a letter that has been published in the Globe, the Herald and (so far) two GateHouse papers: The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River. Because the Globe and the Herald were unable to run everyone’s names, I am posting them here. They include full-time as well as adjunct faculty:

  • Dan Kennedy, interim director
  • Chris Amico
  • Mike Beaudet
  • Nicholas Daniloff (emeritus)
  • Charles Fountain
  • Carlene Hempel
  • Joy Horowitz
  • Jeff Howe
  • William Kirtz
  • Dina Kraft
  • Jean McMillan Lang
  • Laurel Leff
  • Gladys McKie
  • Lincoln McKie
  • Bill Mitchell
  • Tinker Ready
  • James Ross
  • Alan Schroeder

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. In Massachusetts it’s time to let the sun shine in.

Muzzling the press, from Tsarnaev to Delauter

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Frederick News-Post won the Internet Tuesday with a hilariously defiant editorial.

Faced with a threat by a city council member named Kirby Delauter to sue if his name was published without his permission, the Maryland newspaper responded with a piece headlined “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter” that repeated his name nearly 50 times and included his photo. And if that didn’t make the point sufficiently, the first letter of each paragraph spelled out “K-I-R-B-Y-D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.”

Delauter’s ludicrous assault on the First Amendment was easily batted away. But not all matters involving freedom of speech and of the press are as amusing or as trivial. You need look no further than the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is about to begin without the benefit of television cameras inside the courtroom.

Tsarnaev may be sentenced to die on our behalf — yet we are being denied the right to watch the justice system at work, a crucial check on the awesome power of government. Last year a WGBH News Muzzle Award was bestowed upon U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his opposition to cameras in federal courtrooms. Unfortunately, the situation seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

At least the ban on courtroom cameras does not explicitly violate the First Amendment. The same cannot be said of Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz, who on Monday ruled that the news media were prohibited from reporting anything said in court by the defendant in a domestic-violence case, a criminal defense lawyer named Anthony Sineni. Reporting on witness testimony was prohibited as well.

The Portland Press Herald published this article in defiance of the gag order, and reporter Scott Dolan writes that Moskowitz has called a hearing for later today — possibly to express his displeasure over the Press Herald’s actions, or possibly to acknowledge that he got it wrong.

The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all gag orders such as Moskowitz’s are unconstitutional. “There is a 100 percent chance this order is unlawful,” said Press Herald lawyer Sigmund Schutz, who was quoted in a blog post by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have been very clear, what occurs or is said in the court is a matter of public record.”

A different sort of gag order is preventing us from learning everything we might know about the death of Michael Brown, the black unarmed teenager who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. Whether Wilson’s actions were justified or not, the incident helped expose the racial divide in Ferguson and sparked protests nationwide.

Now it turns out that a member of the grand jury that chose not to indict Wilson wants to speak, but is prohibited from doing so by a Missouri law that requires grand jurors to remain silent. The grand juror has filed suit against St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to be allowed to discuss the case.

Though it’s not clear what the grand juror has to say, a report by Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio offers some hints. Quoting from the lawsuit, McDaniel writes: “In [the grand juror]’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate — especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges.” (McDaniel notes that grand jury decisions need not be unanimous.)

Though it is not unusual for grand jury members to be prohibited from speaking, the ACLU, which is assisting with the suit, says that in this particular case “any interests furthered by maintaining grand jury secrecy are outweighed by the interests secured by the First Amendment.” The Boston Globe today editorialized in favor of letting the grand juror speak.

What all of these cases have in common is the belief by some government officials that the press and the public should be treated like mushrooms: watered and in the dark. These matters are not mere threats to abstract constitutional principles. they are assaults on the public’s right to know.

Or as the Frederick News-Post so eloquently put it: Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter! Kirby Delauter!

 

NEFAC honors James Risen, a free-press hero

James Risen

James Risen

James Risen is a free-press hero. Whether he will also prove to be a First Amendment hero depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was presented  with the 2014 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), which is affiliated with Northeastern University. (I wish I’d been able to attend, but I was teaching.) Risen faces prison for refusing to identify an anonymous CIA source who helped inform Risen’s reporting on a failed operation to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program — a story Risen told in his 2006 book, “State of War.”

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed for Risen to give up his source, but Risen has refused. “The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner,” Risen was quoted as saying in this Boston Globe article by Eric Moskowitz. Also weighing in with a detailed account of the NEFAC event is Tom Mooney of The Providence Journal.

My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter and editor, said this of Risen:

There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do. It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Risen has little in the way of legal protection. The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In addition, there is no federal shield law. Thus journalists like Risen must hope that the attorney general — and, ultimately, the president — respect the role of a free press in a democratic society sufficiently not to take reporters to court. President Obama has failed that test in spectacular fashion.

Risen has asked the Supreme Court to take his case, giving the justices an opportunity to overturn or at least modify the Branzburg decision. But if the court declines to take the case, the president should order Attorney General Eric Holder to call off the dogs.

The Stephen Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman, chief executive officer and publisher of The Providence Journal. Previous recipients have been the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (now executive editor of The Washington Post) and Phil Balboni, founder of GlobalPost and, previously, New England Cable News.

More: On this week’s “Beat the Press,” my WGBH colleague Margery Eagan paid tribute to Risen in the “Rants & Raves” segment.

NEFAC seeks First Amendment champions

The following is a press release from the New England First Amendment Coalition, which is affiliated with the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

banner2The New England First Amendment Coalition is seeking applications for a pair of annual awards to recognize both private citizens and professional journalists who aggressively advance the people’s knowledge of what government is doing — or failing to do — on their behalf.

The Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award and the Freedom of Information Award will be presented at NEFAC’s annual luncheon Feb. 7 in Boston. Candidates for the Citizenship Award should have shown tenacity or bravery in the face of difficulty in obtaining information of which the public has a right to know. Both awards will be presented to New Englanders for activity in the six-state region in calendar year 2013.

Nominations for the Citizenship Award are due Jan. 8 and can be made by submitting these forms by email to rosecavanagh.nefac@gmail.com or by fax to 401.751.7542.

Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC’s executive director, said that the FOI Award will be a recognition of journalism at its best, working to bring the sometimes shadowy workings of the government into the light of day. Work in broadcast, online or print media is eligible. It will be given to a New England journalist for work that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law. Preference will be given to applicants who overcome significant official resistance.

Applicants for the FOI Award should submit their story or series along with a cover letter explaining the process of getting the story, why it was a significant accomplishment and how it affected the public. Entries, which also are due by Jan. 8, may be submitted electronically. The entry forms are here.

James Risen

James Risen

NEFAC will honor James Risen, investigative reporter for The New York Times, with the fourth annual Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award at the luncheon. Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s done ground-breaking work on domestic spying, now faces legal peril for refusing to disclose the source for his account of a failed CIA operation in Iran. The Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman and publisher of the Providence Journal. Previous recipients include Philip Balboni, co-founder of GlobalPost; Martin Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and now executive editor of The Washington Post; and the late Anthony Lewis, longtime columnist for The New York Times.

The luncheon will be held in conjunction with the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s 2014 convention and trade show at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, librarians, academics and private citizens. We work in partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at the Northeastern University School of Journalism.