FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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The New England First Amendment Coalition, along with several media organizations, is suing Vermont court officials over delays in public access to judicial documents.
“The First Amendment provides the press and public with a presumptive right of access to newly filed civil complaints, and where the right of access applies, it must be contemporaneous,” according to the lawsuit filed on May 20.
The case is Courthouse News Service v. Gabel and will be heard by the U.S. District Court in Vermont. The lawsuit is the most recent effort by NEFAC to help protect timely access to court documents. Since 2014, the coalition joined several amicus briefs in other cases brought by Courthouse News Service.
Despite a statewide conversion to electronic filings and a 2017 order by the Vermont Supreme Court to make all judicial records available once filed, access to newly filed non-confidential civil complaints is still delayed. The records are often withheld after filing — sometimes for days — waiting to be reviewed and processed before being made available to the public.
Not only do these delays violated the First Amendment, NEFAC and fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued, but the delays are easily avoidable. Courts across the country utilize electronic filing of civil complaints and provide access upon receipt.
“When a new complaint is withheld, the public has no way of knowing that a new civil proceeding has been initiated,” the plaintiffs explained. “Even if they find out about it, through docket information or directly from parties to the case, without access to the complaint itself, the public has no reliable and accurate way to ascertain the factual and legal claims in the new civil action.”
“Delays in access, even of one or two days, make it less likely the complaints will be reported on by the press,” they added. “As a result, coverage of newsworthy cases is diminished.”
NEFAC is the leading advocate for First Amendment freedoms and open government in New England. It fights to protect press rights and promote transparency throughout the six-state region. Learn more about how the coalition is helping to protect your right to government information.
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, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.