Longtime Vermont journalist Mike Donoghue has resigned under pressure as vice president of the New England First Amendment Coalition’s board, according to Lola Duffert of the nonprofit news organization VTDigger. The issue was his ongoing involvement in helping the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington deal with issues of sexual abuse by priests.
Donoghue, who retired several years ago after a decades-long career at the Burlington Free Press, is a member of a lay committee appointed by the Catholic Church “to investigate the church’s personnel files and release the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse,” Duffert wrote.
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), told VTDigger that NEFAC was under the impression that Donoghue’s service on the church committee would wrap up in 2019. After it became clear that Donoghue had continued to work on church business, the NEFAC board concluded that Donoghue had to go.
Donoghue told VTDigger in a written statement that NEFAC misunderstood the committee’s purpose, saying it “was never given the job of determining what church records would be disclosed to the public.”
I’ve got all kinds of entangling alliances here. Donoghue is a friendly acquaintance who I interviewed for my book “The Return of the Moguls.” I’m also friendly with Silverman and NEFAC president Karen Bordeleau, a former editor of the Providence Journal, who — believe it or not — shared the same Northeastern co-op job with me at The Call of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in the 1970s. I occasionally speak at NEFAC events.
In my experience, these are all smart, ethical journalists who are trying to do the right thing. Unfortuately, the difference in their perspectives proved to be too much to overcome.
A bill filed in the New Hampshire legislature would make it more difficult for the public to access police records, reversing a recent decision by the state’s supreme court that requires greater openness. The New England First Amendment Coalition reports:
Senate Bill 39 intends to exempt police personnel files, internal investigations and other law enforcement records from the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law.
If made law, the bill would overturn a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision — Seacoast Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Portsmouth — that ruled such documents were not categorically exempt under the public records statute.
It’s long past time to close a gaping loophole in the Massachusetts public records law: an exemption that allows the Legislature to conduct much of its business in secret. State agencies as well as cities and towns are required to turn over all manner of documents when members of the press and the public ask them to do so. Our elected lawmakers, though, operate under the cover of darkness.
With legislative business wrapping up during the next few weeks, it’s too late to expect anything to happen this year. But Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he expects bills aimed at rolling back at least part of the exemption to be filed next January. Unfortunately, he also expects those bills to die the same quick death that similar proposals have in previous years.
“The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” Ambrogi said in an email. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added he was “fairly certain there is no appetite” on Beacon Hill for any serious effort at reform.
Spokespersons for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, declined to comment.
What prompted this column was a tweet. Two weeks ago, WGBH News published the annual New England Muzzle Awards, which spotlight outrages against the First Amendment from across the region. Anthony Amore, a security expert who was the 2018 Republican candidate for secretary of state, posted on Twitter: “Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.”
Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.
Sadly, the exemption Amore was complaining about is hardly a shocker given the sorry state of open government in Massachusetts. According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit investigative news project MuckRock, Massachusetts is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
“In our state’s constitution, it says that the Legislature should be ‘at all times accountable to’ the people,” Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute told MuckRock. “How can they be accountable if they are hiding behind closed doors or shielding their records from the people?”
MuckRock also pointed out that the four outliers are merely following the lead of Congress, which is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But that’s hardly an excuse. Let’s not forget that, in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity awarded Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of failing to provide public access to information.
The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker did approve an upgrade to the public records law in 2016. But though some progress was made in terms of fees and enforcement provisions, the loopholes remain. Indeed, not only is the Legislature exempt, but so is the judiciary. And a string of governors, including Baker, have claimed that they and their immediate staff also need not comply.
As Boston Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack noted on Twitter earlier this week: “Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws.”
Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor's office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws. https://t.co/ZbkKvQrEuo
Ambrogi said that, during negotiations over the 2016 bill, it was made clear to reform advocates that their efforts would be derailed if they targeted the legislative and gubernatorial exemptions. The bill did create a special legislators-only commission to study further changes — but that effort, according to Ambrogi, has barely gotten off the ground.
In testimony before the commission nearly two years ago, Ambrogi said, a coalition of advocates called for removing the exemption for the governor and for modifying the exemptions for the Legislature and the courts. He emphasized that the advocates have not asked that the legislative exemption be repealed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “we proposed subjecting certain legislative records to the public records law, such as financial reports, bills and resolutions, journals, certain internal memoranda, internal manuals and policies, meeting minutes, and more.”
In a recent point-counterpoint feature in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at the New England School of Law, defended the legislative exemption. “It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”
Yet 46 state legislatures somehow manage to conduct business without such secrecy provisions. As Friedman’s sparring partner, Justin Silverman, argued, “These types of records are used by community watchdogs, journalists, and concerned citizens throughout the country to keep their legislators accountable.” Silverman added that with the COVID-19 pandemic reducing access to government officials, being able to obtain records is more important than ever.
If state agencies, city councils, school committees and select boards can comply with the law, then so, too, can our legislators — and our governor and our court system as well. The law already contains a number of common-sense exceptions for such matters as protecting the secrecy of contract negotiations and, when warranted, the privacy of government employees.
There are a number of clichés you could invoke here — sunshine is the best disinfectant, the government works for us, the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the like. The bottom line, though, is that democratic self-government is impossible if our elected officials are shielded from having to tell us what they are saying and doing on our behalf.
The moment has come to bring this outrage to an end.
The following is a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.
BOSTON—In a pair of unanimous, bipartisan votes, the state House of Representatives and Senate today passed the first major reform of Massachusetts public records law in four decades, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has 10 days to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. If signed into law by Governor Baker, the legislation would address widely criticized weaknesses in Massachusetts public records law, which make it hard for citizens to get information about how their government functions.
“This is a great day for open government,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We thank the House and the Senate for making public records reform a priority and for getting the job done. We also call on Governor Baker to do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”
The bill would:
Set clear limits on how much money government agencies can charge for public records;
Set reasonable time frames for responses to public records requests;
Allow municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the ability to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs;
Strengthen enforcement of the law by giving courts the ability to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records.
The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance—a coalition of open-government groups—praised the House and its leadership for making transparency a significant legislative priority. The coalition urged Governor Charlie Baker to sign the legislation without delay and usher in a new era of openness in Massachusetts state government.
“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government, and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation. This reform is long overdue and we hope the Governor will sign it without delay.”
In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the Commonwealth an “F” grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row. Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform, arguing that the law is among the weakest in the country and needs updating for the digital age. State lawmakers made their last substantive amendment to the law in 1973.
“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records. We hope and expect Governor Baker will prove himself to be a transparency-minded Governor by signing it into law.”
“Massachusetts residents deserve a stronger public records law, and this bill offers many improvements. We look forward to the governor signing it into law and providing more opportunity to hold government officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
The pending legislation advanced earlier in the week when a conference committee of six legislators reconciled earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. The bill passed by the House and Senate today includes provisions designed to reduce the cost of obtaining public records and ensure timely responses to information requests. In addition, by allowing courts to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public information, the bill would bring Massachusetts into line with 47 other states. The new law would not make such fee awards mandatory, but would establish a presumption in favor of covering requesters’ legal costs when courts find the law has been violated. The bill also includes safety-valve mechanisms to enable municipalities to get extensions on compliance deadlines and to receive reasonable compensation when dealing with particularly complex, time-consuming requests.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Gavi Wolfe, ACLU of Massachusetts
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
Bob Ambrogi, MA Newspaper Publishers Association
Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition
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.
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.)
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
Nicholas Daniloff (emeritus)
Jean McMillan Lang
This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. In Massachusetts it’s time to let the sun shine in.
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 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!
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.