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BOSTON, Mass. — The New England First Amendment Coalition will honor on Feb. 7 a mother who has fought for the rights of disabled students in Darien, Conn. and a Vermont newspaper and reporter who have waged a lengthy legal battle to uncover documents that reveal serious issues of wrongdoing and lack of accountability in the Rutland police department.
Kit Savage will receive the inaugural Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award and NEFAC’s Freedom of Information Award will be given to Brent Curtis and The Rutland Herald. The honors will be bestowed at the NEFAC awards luncheon at the Boston Park Plaza hotel.
“New England First Amendment Coalition recognizes that it takes both an engaged public and determined reporters to hold those in power accountable, which is why we have chosen to acknowledge both New England citizens and journalists at our awards luncheon,” said Robert Bertsche, chairman of NEFAC’s awards committee.
“Kit Savage has likely done more to promote open governance in Darien, Connecticut than anyone in the town’s history,” wrote David DesRoches, a reporter from the Darien Times who has written more than 120 stories on the legal rights of disabled students in Darien and submitted Savage’s nomination letter for award. “She came to me, a reporter at the local paper… armed with a vast knowledge that she gained during years of research. She filed numerous FOIA requests many of which were denied illegally or answered incompletely. She persevered… She has stood up for the town’s most vulnerable children… [and] embodies what it means to be a good citizen, to care about the greater good, about what is right and to hold those in power accountable.”
Her requests and investigation uncovered a litany of violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which formed the basis of a complaint against the district to the state Department of Education. Through an investigation launched as a result of the complaint, 32 violations of the IDEA were identified, which together hampered the education of more than 100 special education students in Darien. As a result of the state Department of Education investigation, the Darien school district hired one of the nation’s foremost civil rights experts on education, Attorney Sue Gamm, to conduct an extensive evaluation. Savage continues to be on the front lines pressing the district to make good on the recommendations of the reports, as it seems to parents that recommended changes have yet to be felt on the front lines.
Brent Curtis, a reporter for The Rutland Herald, requested police records of an internal investigation of a Rutland detective sergeant and an animal control officer who allegedly viewed pornographic material on their computers. Those requests were denied by the police department, the denial of which became the subject of a three-year litigation which was decided in the Herald’s favor last fall. Through the records, the paper found that the detective sergeant in question downloaded 25,839 pornographic images to his computer, including 15 images identified as possible child pornography. The state police launched an investigation into these images but could not determine if underage subjects were involved, despite the fact that one of the bookmarked sites on the sergeant’s computer had “teen” in the name. Both the sergeant and animal control officer were suspended for two weeks without pay; the sergeant was placed on paid administrative leave for two months during the investigation.
Interviews by Curtis of the former mayor of Rutland revealed that the light punishment came after the sergeant threatened he would go public with names of other officers viewing pornography at work. The police chief determined such a move would give his department “a black eye,” and imposed the two week suspension. The same sergeant was later assigned to head the department’s bureau of criminal investigations. The litigation resulted in a legal precedent which will serve to open up more police documents to public viewing in Vermont.
NEFAC will also honor James Risen, investigative reporter of The New York Times, with the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award. 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 event is sponsored by The Providence Journal Charitable Fund (Presenting Sponsor), The Boston Globe (Patriot Circle Sponsor), WBUR, The New York Times and Samuel Adams (Liberty Circle Sponsors).
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.