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The New England First Amendment Coalition testified yesterday in favor of improving access to Massachusetts court records, calling such access a long-standing public benefit within the Commonwealth.
“Public access to court records is not just a public benefit to the here and now, it is part of this Commonwealth’s proud legal heritage,” said attorney Jeffrey Pyle of Prince Lobel Tye in Boston, speaking on behalf of NEFAC and several other media organizations. “The law has been pretty clear, for a long time, that strictly speaking there is no privacy interest in court records and information that is publicly available in our courtrooms.”
Pyle and many other open government advocates spoke Monday at a public hearing held by the state’s Trial Court Public Access to Court Records Committee. The committee is developing trial court rules that would govern the public’s access to court records.
In a May 1 letter to Superior Court Justice Peter Lauriat, chairman of the committee, NEFAC cited several concerns with the current system, including a lack of public access to masscourts.org, a state-run website that intends to link courthouses across the Commonwealth. Unlike its predecessor, this site originally provided docket information only to those with a Board of Bar Overseers number, effectively limiting the court records to attorneys.
“There should be no differing types of access between differing classes of people,” Pyle explained to the committee yesterday. “Access to documents, whether they are put up in full text online or dockets, should be equally available to attorneys and non-attorneys, including journalists, pro se litigants, and the general public.”
NEFAC asked the committee to follow these principles:
“It’s important for these principles to be followed,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “The public has a right to know how its judicial system works and what’s occurring in its courtrooms.”
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. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, and Boston University.