NEFAC, MNPA Explain to Mass. Supreme Judicial Court the First Amendment Concerns in Lanier Case

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 |


The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association recently explained to the state’s highest court how a case involving ownership rights in photography could indirectly limit how journalists gather news.

The case — Lanier v. President and Fellows of Harvard College — involves a woman claiming that Harvard University illegally possesses photos of her enslaved ancestors.

The photos are from the 1850s and considered to be among the earliest images of enslaved people in the United States. They were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial differences were used to support slavery in the country.

“The circumstances in which these photos were taken are horrific,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “But how the court rules in this case could have the unintended consequence of severely restricting the ability of journalists to report the news.”

In an Oct. 12 amicus brief filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, NEFAC and MNPA explained that granting an ownership interest to those depicted in photographs would chill journalists and news organizations from taking photos and videos to use in their reporting. They wrote that:

So many iconic images have been taken under objectionable and shocking circumstances and yet changed the course of history. In fact, it has often been the shocking nature of what these photographs depicted that made them so impactful. Just mentioning them is enough to conjure the image in our minds: Eddie Adams’ photograph during the Vietnam War of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese police chief, shooting a suspected member of the Viet Cong at point-blank range; the image of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio crying out over the body of Jeffrey Miller moments after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State in 1970; Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of busing protestors attacking Ted Landsmark at Boston City Hall with an American flag. Time after time in our nation’s history, it has been the reporting of objectionable and outrageous conduct that has ignited reform of that conduct or an end to the circumstances in which it occurred.

NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. The coalition regularly drafts and joins amicus briefs in cases involving First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know about government. All coalition briefs, advocacy letters and statements can be found here.

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.

Leadership Circle donors for 2021 include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Boston University, WBUR-Boston and the Academy of New England Journalists.