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“We were taught that people have a right to practice any religion they want — or none if they want,” Leahy said. “And we were taught that in the United States, everyone is guaranteed the right to speak, whether your speech is popular or not. The Leahys believed — and this Leahy believes — that if you guarantee the freedoms of religion and speech, you guarantee diversity. And if you guarantee diversity, you protect democracy.”
NEFAC hosted its sixth annual New England First Amendment Awards luncheon at Boston Park Plaza, honoring Leahy with the 2016 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award. The award is named after Stephen Hamblett, a former publisher of the Providence Journal, and is given to an individual who has promoted, defended or advocated for the First Amendment.
Addressing the recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the political battle over his successor, Leahy implored his Republican counterparts to consider a nominee before the current presidential administration’s end.
“We have never refused to send a nominee to the full Senate for consideration,” said Leahy, who serves as chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “I expect Senate Republicans to uphold this bipartisan tradition for the next Supreme Court nominee.”
Leahy added that “to preemptively reject any consideration of the next Supreme Court justice is unprecedented and dangerous. I do not expect this partisan gamesmanship to succeed. The Supreme Court of the United States is far too important to our democracy for it to be without a justice for more than a year. And it is critically important for protecting the very rights we are discussing here today — freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of religion.”
FOI Award Named After Veteran Reporter
During the luncheon, Tom Fiedler, NEFAC’s president, announced that the coalition will name its Freedom of Information Award after long-time board member Michael Donoghue. Donoghue recently retired from the Burlington Free Press after more than 40 years in its newsroom.
“He has been involved in virtually every major public records issue in the state of Vermont during that time,” Fiedler said. “The work he has done has had an incalculable impact.”
The Freedom of Information Award honors a journalist for a body of work that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law. The first Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award will be presented at the 2017 luncheon. A fundraiser in honor of Donoghue has been established by the coalition and contributions can be made here.
‘Fighting for the Public’s Right to Know’
This year’s FOI Award recipient, Jenifer McKim of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, discussed her series of stories about the inability of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to protect children in the state.
McKim encouraged others to “fight for the public’s right to know, especially when we are bringing to light problems with the state’s ability to protect one of its most powerless constituencies, at risk children.”
She spoke about the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and a Massachusetts eight-month-old child, William James Berry of Lowell, who she wrote about in her article “Out of the Shadows.” Berry was shaken to death by his father whom suffered post traumatic stress disorder. McKim stressed that states need to be more open to turning over information about abused children.
“It is imperative for analyzing the government’s ability to protect children,” McKim said. “Our investigation added to the mounting evidence and public scrutiny made evident in other powerful stories of dead and abused children.”
McKim’s investigative journalistic efforts have led to state policy changes and a more informed perspective on child abuse cases.
‘A Basic American Right’
Also honored at the luncheon was Michael A. Champa, a Boston philanthropist who fought for records detailing the settlement agreements between parents of children with learning disabilities and the school districts of those children. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard Champa’s case last year and ruled in favor of releasing the agreements.
“In the push to improve our public access laws we forget that public access has a face,” Champa said. “In our case, it is the face of our 14-year-old daughter, Caroline. It’s the face of ordinary citizens trying to understand their government in order to make an informed decision or expose a wrong. It’s a discovery process, often dearly earned, and grounded in a basic American right to unfettered access to their government. It seems that government officials sometimes forget that the preamble to our Constitution begins with the line, ‘We the people.'”
Transparency within public school systems is essential for all communities whether or not the students are from the inner city or affluent suburbs, Champa said. Information helps provide a level of fairness and equality among all students, he added.
“Our public access journey began more than five years ago when Caroline was denied educational services by our public school district that we and a panel of experts believed she needed,” he explained. “As we researched the alternatives and tried to work with our school system it became apparent that we did not have the information we needed to make an informed decision and there was no way to determine if the school was acting properly. Requests for information went unanswered and the district refused to provide the kind of data any parent would want when deciding the fate of their child or when trying to evaluate the quality of their school. We had no choice but to file a public records lawsuit.”
‘We Can All Play a Part’
Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC, said the annual luncheon is a way to honor those who work diligently on behalf of open government and transparency.
“It’s so important to share their stories and acknowledge them for the incredible work they have done,” Silverman said. “Whether you’re a senator, journalist or private citizen, it is necessary to demand our elected leaders to be transparent and accountable. We can all play a part in keeping our communities informed and protecting the public’s right to know.”
Learn more about NEFAC’s annual New England First Amendment Awards luncheon here. More information on this year’s program, including biographies of all recipients, photos and video, can be found here.
A special thank to this year’s sponsors, contributors and table hosts, including The Boston Globe, Boston University, WBUR-Boston, Northeastern University, Prince Lobel LLP, Blish & Cavanagh LLP, Saint Michael’s College, and WXFT-Boston.
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 Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.