The following blog post is one of seven that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Justin Silverman
The 10th annual Sunshine Week campaign reminded the nation for seven days that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that publicity can cure society’s ills. News organizations throughout New England delivered this message to their readers, listeners and viewers all week. But rather than shelving Justice Brandeis quotes until next March, we need to continue to honor the spirit of Sunshine Week year-round.
This is particularly important in Massachusetts where efforts to reform the state’s public records law have existed for years and are now beginning to gain momentum. Long criticized as one the weakest public records statutes in the country, the state’s law is essentially toothless and in a sorry state. Prompted in part by recent public records rulings that made a bad situation intolerably worse, newspapers in Massachusetts banded together this week and declared that it’s time for reform. That reform can occur if several common-sense measures are legislated into the law.
The New England First Amendment Coalition has been working with several other open-government advocates to help pass HB 2772, legislation that would modernize the public records statute and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement. If the bill is passed, the public records law would, among other things, require agencies to have a “point person” to handle requests, make fees for obtaining records reflect the actual costs of producing those records, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.
As the bill’s sponsors — Rep. Peter Kocot, and Sens. Jason Lewis and Jamie Eldridge — wrote in a recent column, this bill “would fix the Massachusetts public records law. . . . These simple improvements to modernize the public records process would save time and money and help to restore public trust in government.” This legislation will also help highlight the need for reform beyond the conclusion of Sunshine Week. We must make sure this effort continues, the need for reform is not forgotten, and the momentum is not lost.
During this Sunshine Week, media outlets in Massachusetts shared their own open-government stories, often on a daily basis. They editorialized about the need for more accessibility. They reported on their recent battles for public information. They explained why transparency is needed within government and how the lack of sunshine can keep communities in the dark. These are reminders that should be frequently given. While it is a journalist’s job to obtain information and break stories, it’s also important to recognize those stories that cannot be broken and to share the reasons why.
Here are just several of those reasons:
- Judges across Massachusetts are more frequently sealing court documents, forcing news organizations into costly and time-consuming legal battles to keep the basic workings of the judicial system public.
- Law officials in Massachusetts have broad power to determine which criminal records can be made public, “even when the information relates to wrongdoing in their own departments.”
- The names of those arrested for domestic violence-related offenses are excluded from public police logs, a statutory requirement enacted last year that removes an essential tool for journalists.
- Like his three predecessors did while in office, recently elected Gov. Charlie Baker made the claim that he’s not covered by the state’s public records law.
These and other concerns will continue to cast their collective shadow well beyond Sunshine Week. It’s up to all of us to continue shining light on them when they do.
Justin is NEFAC’s executive director. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.