NEFAC Opposes Fees to Inspect Records in Vermont, Touts Benefits of Transparency

Coalition Encourages Lawmakers to Follow Recent Doyle Decision and Keep Free Inspection

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View testimony of NEFAC’s Michael Donoghue

The New England First Amendment Coalition recently testified against efforts in Vermont to charge fees for the inspection of public records.

A Vermont Supreme Court decision last year held that citizens are able to inspect records free of charge under the state’s public records law, but legislators are now considering a change to the law that would allow fees.

“Why should taxpayers get charged to read minutes of government meetings, or letters to the town boards, or review the legal bills submitted to the town?” asked NEFAC’s Michael Donoghue in prepared remarks to the Senate Government Operations Committee.

“Once you start charging to read public records, you have to wonder if charging the public to attend public meetings is far behind,” he added.

Donoghue appeared before the committee on Jan. 16 representing NEFAC and the Vermont Press Association. Read his prepared testimony here. Or watch here.

The legislative effort to allow fees for the inspection of public records follows the 2019 decision in Doyle v. Burlington Police Dept.

The case involves a Vermont resident who requested body camera footage of alleged police misconduct during an incident with a minor. The department initially refused access to the video but eventually offered it to the resident for a fee of several hundred dollars.

The Vermont Supreme Court found that citizens cannot be charged for requesting the examination of records as opposed to requesting a copy of the record.

NEFAC, who along with several other organizations filed an amicus brief in the case, hailed the decision as a “win for transparency.”

“The right to inspect as a part of the right to access agency documents and records is an indispensable component of the journalistic process,” NEFAC and fellow amici wrote in their brief. “It is through the free and open examination of records that journalists can sift through voluminous details and independently gather key information and facts about an emerging story.”

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, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.