The New England First Amendment Coalition commends everyone who is keeping our communities informed during this COVID-19 pandemic. In a climate of pervasive misinformation and government secrecy, we want to assist you. Our Board of Directors includes many of the region’s best journalists, news professionals and attorneys.
In addition to supporting a free legal hotline for journalists, we are providing online tutorials and individualized advice about newsgathering. We are teaching journalism students and the general public about the value of transparency during a public health crisis. We are sharing information about open meeting and public records challenges within all New England states.
Please support these much-needed efforts by making a donation today.
We are continuing to look for ways to better help you during these difficult circumstances. Please tell us about your current needs and how we can assist. Email NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a Dec. 20 letter to state legislators — signed by NEFAC and other open government advocates in the state including the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association — the groups reaffirmed their general support for H.3152/S.2082, An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings, and made suggestions on how the bill could be changed to provide even more access to government.
NEFAC’s Justin Silverman spoke with Steven Brown at the ACLU of Rhode Island about a request made to Gov. Daniel McKee to reinstate an executive order that would require hybrid/ remote public meetings. ACCESS/RI, a group of open government organizations including NEFAC, called it matter of “great urgency” given COVID-19 concerns.
Calling it “a matter of great urgency,” ACCESS/RI, a group of open government organizations including the New England First Amendment Coalition, has called on R.I. Gov. Daniel McKee to reinstate an executive order that was in effect throughout the COVID pandemic until this past June, allowing for remote meetings of public bodies while requiring livestreaming and remote public participation.
NEFAC joined several other open government groups in the state to urge the use of American Rescue Plan Act money “to create a grant program to improve the technological capacity of our cities and towns to conduct accessible public meetings — by enabling residents to join a meeting and contribute to the proceedings both in person and remotely.”
“Because of this new pandemic wave, it is our understanding that some public bodies have had difficulty garnering quorums to meet in person due to the health concerns of some members,” the groups wrote in a Sept. 23 letter. “Just as importantly, we know that some members of the public have been reluctant to attend public meetings for those same reasons.”
“This is a matter of accountability,” explained NEFAC’s Michael Donoghue at a May 6 hearing of the Vermont Sentate Institutions Committee. “Only with in-person hearings can the public’s voice be fully heard. Despite the benefits of technology, remote access software allows public officials to more easily limit citizen speech and avoid contentious issues.”
“Any proposal or any plan that’s being considered that shuts out the public entirely I think is a plan that should be abandoned and rethought,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, an organization that advocates for government transparency and media organizations.
Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, recently explained to WPRI-Providence that Raimondo’s decision to avoid the press is problematic, especially since she’s still the acting governor during an ongoing pandemic. “She is a sitting governor and there are a lot of very important questions that need to be asked of her,” Silverman said.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has not made herself available for questioning from journalists since being nominated last month for Commerce Secretary in President-Elect Joseph Biden’s Administration. “With Rhode Island reeling from cases of COVID-19 and a need for timely and accurate health information, there is no substitute for direct access to the governor,” according to NEFAC’s Jan. 19 letter.
A conversation with Tiffany Tan, a reporter at the Bennington Banner, about how access to the Vermont judicial system has been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic and why citizens should be demanding more transparency.
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told the Bennington Banner that almost a year into the pandemic, courts should have already worked out how to provide public access to hearings. “That’s far too long for any state to go without establishing some kind of consistently enforced policy that allows the public to access its court system,” he said, adding that “other states are providing that access, so it can be done. It should be done, and the public should demand that it be done not months from now, not weeks from now, but done now.”
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told the Times Record that there is still a lot of value in the public meeting face-to-face with local representatives to ask questions. He said the hope of everyone should be to meet in person safely but also to have the technology in place for people to participate remotely, “because now, that is addressing everyone’s needs and making it possible for as many citizens to participate as possible.”
Viewers will learn how to prepare themselves for coverage of protests, interactions with law enforcement and the health risks posed by COVID-19. This in-depth conversation features Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times, Daniel McFadden of the ACLU-Massachusetts, Tara O’Neill of Hearst Connecticut and Stephanie Sugars of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The New England First Amendment Coalition called on the U.S. Supreme Court to continue to make live audio access available for as long as the Supreme Court Building is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This access promotes an even more informed citizenry, particularly when thousands or tens of thousands of people can listen to a live argument, compared to the 50 to 100 members of the public who are able to attend an argument in person.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, led a discussion on the challenges facing open government during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The presentation was part of the 2020 National Freedom of Information FOI Summit.
The unprecedented circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and new safety protocols in the region’s schools make it especially important that students at all levels remain free to express themselves and share information about their school experience, representatives from both groups said.
“Unlike other states, here Massachusetts, we can pinpoint a location where the outbreak began: Biogen. That’s where it began. To not have all of the information disclosed … it’s inconceivable,” said Justin Silverman, the director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Without knowing what procedures could be approved upon, we’re doing ourselves a disservice moving into the fall and into the winter flu-season.”
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman explains to USA Today that several states have cited HIPAA as a reason for withholding coronavirus case counts at nursing homes, although many later reversed course and released that information.
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman joined Jordan Frias of the Society of Professional Journalists New England Chapter and Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe to discuss open government challenges within the region during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A conversation with NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman; John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island; and NEFAC’s Tim White, an investigative journalist at WPRI-Providence; about the toll taken on open government during the COVID-19 pandemic through executive orders issued by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
In an op/ed for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, NEFAC emphasized the need to preserve citizen oversight and engagement during remote meetings. To do this, the coalition said, government officials should take certain steps beyond what the law requires. “However difficult it may be to host public meetings online, citizens must demand that they have sufficient access and oversight,” the coalition wrote. “By looking for ways to better facilitate public participation, we can use this pandemic as an opportunity — one that will set the groundwork for more access and a higher standard of transparency moving forward.”
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that while a balance clearly needs to be struck between public safety and access, that balance should continue to shift toward access as more and more segments of society reopen. “To have the courts shut down and not provide the same level of access they normally do for an extended period of time is really a danger to the public’s right to know,” he said.
NEFAC, Press Advocates Call on R.I. Governor to Repeal ‘Extremely Damaging’ Executive Order Delaying Access to Public Records
Calling Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s two-and-a-half-month old executive order giving public bodies extra time to respond to open records requests “unwarranted and extremely damaging to the public interest,” the New England First Amendment Coalition and other media and open government organizations today called on her to immediately rescind the order. The groups acknowledged that “a temporary extension may have made sense at the beginning of the crisis, [but] the 20-business-day extension already written into the statute is . . . more than sufficient at this stage of the emergency to address any burdens posed by a 10-day deadline.”
NEFAC Continues to Demand Release of Localized COVID-19 Data in Maine; Coalition Joins Newsrooms Throughout State to Demonstrate the Public’s Right to Know
The New England First Amendment Coalition and a group of news organizations in Maine are continuing to demand the release of localized COVID-19 case data, information now provided by every other state in the region. NEFAC and newsrooms throughout the state last week further increased pressure on government officials to release the data by submitting identical public records requests. The coordinated effort intends to demonstrate the right of citizens to know how many cases of the novel coronavirus have been identified in their communities.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said there is real worry among journalists that some state agencies will use the crisis to create a new, less transparent normal. “Our concern is that public agencies are going to use the pandemic as an excuse to be more secretive than they actually were,” Silverman said. The fear is that the slow, delayed, and or denied requests will set expectations for transparent and open access to government information. “There’s a lot of opportunity there for the public to be shut out and secrecy to be increased across the board,” Silverman said.
NEFAC and a group of open government advocates called on Maine officials to release town-by-town COVID-19 case data. “Access to more information on numbers of COVID-19 cases by specific location would have direct public health benefits, by allowing the public to better prepare and take precautions,” they wrote in an April 27 letter to Gov. Janet Mills and Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. “It would also serve to enhance public confidence in Maine’s response by replacing rumors and suspicion with solid data.”
NEFAC Executive Director Calls for Transparency From Group Advising Connecticut Governor on Reopening Economy
“We can’t lower our expectations because things might be harder right now,” Justin Silverman, executive director for the New England First Amendment Coalition, told Hearst Connecticut Media Group. “The public needs to be able to oversee who is in on the conversation, what they are saying and why they are making the decisions that they are … to have any of these conversations occurring in secret without any kind of public oversight would really be to the great detriment of the public.”
The New England First Amendment Coalition is providing educators throughout the region with expert speakers for an increasing number of virtual classes being taught during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition can work with teachers of all levels — grade school through college graduate programs — to develop presentations addressing civics, journalism, freedom of information laws and other aspects of democracy and the First Amendment.
NEFAC Executive Director Explains Responsibilities of Government During Pandemic Despite ‘Learning Curve’
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an Open Meeting Law heavily modified by executive order, technological barriers represent a learning curve faced by public leaders, Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told the Salem News. “Because there’s such a learning curve in most cases, and the public is still being shut out of meetings, these officials should be doing everything they can to mitigate the damage from that secrecy and go above and beyond the requirements of Open Meeting Law,” he said.
NEFAC, Loeb School Offering Free Online Classes About First Amendment, Open Government During Public Health Crisis
The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications are offering two free online classes about the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government: Freedom of Information Laws and Your Right to Know on April 23 and the First Amendment in Times of Crisis on April 29. To participate in either or both classes described below, register for them and you will receive log-in information.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the state ought to be sharing more specific information with municipalities so that residents can better understand how the virus is affecting communities at large. “Transparency during this pandemic is crucial,” he said. “We need to have timely information about the coronavirus so we can make the best decisions about keeping ourselves and our families safe. Without knowing how many cases of the virus are in our towns, it’s difficult if not impossible to assess the threat.”
The New England First Amendment Coalition is supporting a free legal hotline open to all news media in the region — print, broadcast, audio, video and online — seeking help obtaining access to public records, government meetings and public spaces during the COVID-19 crisis. Prince Lobel Tye, a Boston media law firm, is operating the hotline pro bono.
While Raimondo fielded questions from kids, she did not make any new policy announcements, nor did she answer questions from news reporters. The New England First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit organization that advocates for journalists, issued a statement. A spokesman noted that “whether in person or remotely, journalists need to be able to meaningfully engage with the governor,” including having the option of asking follow-up questions, “which can lead to more clarity and understanding of how the state is responding to the pandemic.”
In a recent op/ed published by The Boston Globe, NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman explained that much of our government is becoming shrouded in secrecy despite how often top officials appear on our screens with updates. “Timely and accurate information about government is crucial to maintaining trust during a crisis,” Silverman wrote. “We can’t trust our public institutions unless we know what they’re doing on our behalf.”
The coalition wrote to the governors of several states describing the essential services newsrooms are providing during the COVID-19 pandemic. “In print, on the air and online, journalists play a crucial, constitutionally protected role in providing information to communities during a time of crisis,” according to NEFAC and several organizations representing press interests throughout the region.
NEFAC joined a group of open government advocates to demand transparency and opportunities for public oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Government bodies should not opportunistically take advantage of the public’s inability to attend large gatherings to make critical decisions affecting the public’s interest if those decisions can reasonably be postponed,” according to NEFAC and more than 100 other open government advocates in a March 20 statement.
While it’s reasonable to allow public officials more flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic, according to NEFAC, there still must be citizen participation and oversight. “This order makes it too easy for officials to evade transparency,” NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman told WPRI in Providence. “As the governor said herself in the order, there are low-cost options available that allow public participation for meetings held remotely. Municipalities should be required to use them.”