NEFAC Testifies in Support of In-Person Public, Press Access to Vermont Legislature

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The New England First Amendment Coalition testified today in support of in-person access for the public and press to future Vermont legislative hearings.

“This is a matter of accountability,” explained NEFAC’s Michael Donoghue at a May 6 hearing of the Vermont Sentate Institutions Committee on behalf of the coalition and the Vermont Press Association. “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.”

The Vermont Legislature is considering multiple recommendations on how to return to in-person meetings at the State House beginning in 2022 given remaining COVID-19 safety concerns. One of those recommendations includes allowing access to the building for lawmakers and staff only.

“We realize that long-term steps may be needed to fit everyone in, but the press has a critical role in covering the state house that should be recognized,” Donoghue said.

NEFAC provided several additional suggestions for re-opening the State House:

• Even if in-person attendance is achieved, remote access should continue for those who may not be able to attend in person.
• Remote access must be continually improved. Access issues remain for many citizens throughout the state.
• When live hearings are provided remotely, their broadcast must begin early and run late. Relevant comments are often made by officials before and after a hearing that can only otherwise be heard if the public is actually in the committee room.
• Remote access is not an adequate substitute for in-person attendance. While such access is a important for those who may not be able to attend a hearing, it’s still important for constituents to have face-time with their representatives.
• As a last resort, a pool reporter is acceptable if safe spacing cannot be secured. At the very least, the press must be physically present.

NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. Learn more about how NEFAC is helping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.