While pleased that remote access to, and participation in, public meetings remains an option through March, this group of advocates expressed disappointment that the Massachusetts legislature could not agree on permanent reforms at this time. “Lawmakers must prioritize this issue at the start of the next session. Massachusetts can’t afford to shut the door on members of the community who have too often been left out of our political process. Providing Bay Staters with the option to remotely participate in public meetings makes the democratic process more accessible for people with disabilities, those who may not have access to reliable transportation, have caretaking responsibilities, or are unable to take a leave of absence from work, among other daily challenges. We must not return to an inequitable past as the Commonwealth moves forward,” the statement reads in part.
Maura Healey Takes Right Step in Pledging Transparency as Governor | MassLive 12.29.22
Government transparency has been an objective of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England Newspaper & Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition. It isn’t just members of these organizations who will benefit, though, but the public at large.
End the Secrecy in State Government | The Sun Chronicle 12.26.22
We join with the executive directors of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition in urging Healey to break with the exemption precedent and file legislation to make all three branches of government subject to public records law. “You have the singular opportunity to reverse 25 years of an ill-conceived policy that has allowed the governor’s office to operate under a level of secrecy that is unimaginable in 48 of 50 U.S. states,” they wrote to her recently.
Kudos to Maura Healey | The Eagle-Tribune 12.23.22
As the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England Newspaper and Press Association put it in a letter to Healey earlier this week, “As a matter of public policy, there is no reason to give the governor’s office a blanket exemption from the law. “No doubt,” the groups wrote, “there are certain documents within the governor’s office that should be excluded from the public view. But the existing exemptions to the public records law – such as those related to policy development and personal privacy – fully cover these situations and protect the governor’s office to the same extent that they protect any other state or local official performing an executive function.”
Healey Endorses Public Record Law for All of State Government; Attleboro Area Lawmakers Mixed | The Sun Chronicle 12.22.22
In an interview on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio, Healey said she would not claim a public records exemption as governor and she would support removing exemptions the Legislature and judiciary claim they have. Meanwhile, the executive directors of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition wrote a letter to Healey, asking her to file legislation to amend the public records law to make it clear that it applies to the governor’s office. The groups also asked the incoming governor to appoint a public records officer.
The interview comes one day after the the executive directors of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition penned a letter to Healey, asking that she file legislation to amend the public records law to make clear that it applies to the governor’s office. The groups also asked the incoming governor to issue an executive order subjecting her office to the law and to appoint a public records officer. “You have the singular opportunity to reverse 25 years of an ill-conceived policy that has allowed the governor’s office to operate under a level of secrecy that is unimaginable in 48 of 50 US states,” they wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 19.
Right-to-Know Requests Could Become Costlier Under Proposed Bill | New Hampshire Bulletin 12.15.22
Natch Greyes of the New Hampshire Municipal Association said he expects “99.9 percent” of records requests will take less than an hour and incur no charge if the legislation passes. Attorney Greg Sullivan, president of the New England First Amendment Coalition’s board of directors, disputed that. Sullivan has long represented the New Hampshire Union Leader and citizens in right-to-know cases. “We have requests pending where the agency has said we need 30 days to do our searching. Lord knows why,” he said. “I totally do not believe that assertion that 90 or whatever number they said would be resolved with one hour of searching. That’s just not been my experience over the years.” Sullivan noted that the state Supreme Court has upheld the right of public bodies to charge for the actual cost of copying records, such as expenses for paper and a copying machine; communities generally charge 25 cents to $1 a page. If the legislation becomes law, Sullivan said he would expect a legal challenge to its constitutionality given the state constitution’s requirement that governmental proceedings and records not be unreasonably restricted. “It’s a great mandate to understand that we are the government. We the people own the government, we own the copy machines,” he said. “The Constitution and the preamble say these public employees are our agents and servants. You just have to read Part 1, Article 8, read the preamble (the right to know law), and that tells all of us that the government has a duty to be as responsive as they possibly can be. And I see this bill as a roadblock to that accountability.”
UMass Journalism Hosts ‘The First Amendment and The Free Press’ | The Daily Collegian 11.16.22
On Nov. 15, the University of Massachusetts Journalism Department hosted an interactive presentation, “The First Amendment and The Free Press,” in the Journalism Hub of the Integrative Learning Center. The presentation was run by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Silverman works as a Massachusetts-based attorney and has experience as a journalist and publisher. Additionally, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law and New England Law. The New England First Amendment Coalition is a non-profit organization that, according to their website, “defends, promotes and expands public access to government and the work it does … that aspires to advance and protect the five freedoms of the First Amendment, and the principle of the public’s right to know, in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.”
Healey Has Said She Lives in Boston. In Reality, the Governor-Elect Moved Out of the City Months Ago | The Boston Globe 11.16.22
Knowing where an elected official lives can help the public better understand what factors may influence an official’s decision-making or frame their priorities, these experts argue. Not being transparent about even that small of a detail also can “speak to one’s credibility,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “We should expect full transparency from our governor,” Silverman said. “When someone in elected office tells us that they’re living in a particular city, we deserve to know if that’s true or not.”
Mass. Public Records Law Criticized for Lack of Transparency (video) | Western Mass. News 11.14.22
“We have this reputation of being this great liberal state, a lot of transparency, but that’s just not the case. In fact, we are the only state in the country that has the governor’s office, the judiciary, and the legislature exempt, or claiming to be exempt, from the public records law,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Silverman said the state’s lack of transparency starts at the top with exemptions to the public records law put in place by lawmakers to shield themselves from oversight. . . . “Oftentimes, what we’re seeing is that these exemptions can be overused. They can be misapplied, they can be abused, they can be used as a way to shield the public’s view of what’s going on in government,” Silverman explained. . . . “The only recourse you have as a member of the public is either hope the secretary of state’s office may refer this to the A.G.’s office to pursue in court, which rarely happens, or bring a lawsuit on your own,” Silverman noted. . . . “It’s really going to be a detriment to the public because we’re going to be working with secrecy and not transparency and we’re going to be left guessing what’s going on in those dark corners of the government,” Silverman said.
BLM, NAACP, Union Leader Join ACLU in Effort to Open Files of Fired Trooper | Union Leader 11.8.22
The Union Leader, BLM-Manchester, the New England NAACP and the New England First Amendment Coalition all submitted papers last week that urge the New Hampshire Supreme Court to rule that internal files of Trooper Haden Wilber should be disclosed under the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law.
Does the Open Meeting Law Need an Update? | WCAX 10.14.22
Justin Silverman, with the New England First Amendment Coalition agrees, saying opening dialogue about the law is a good first step. “Anytime we’re discussing changes to the Open Meeting Law, we need to get specific and make sure everyone has clear expectations as to what the government’s obligations are to the public and how the public can best access the government,” Silverman said.
Rhode Island Rolls Out Statewide Plan for Body-Worn Cameras | The Boston Globe 10.13.22
ACCESS/Rhode Island, a coalition of nonprofit organizations concerned with government transparency, said the policy falls short. “Transparency and oversight is only as meaningful as the public’s ability to access the critical footage and information that is collected by this technology,” the coalition said in a statement issued Thursday. “While the policy deployed by the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s office puts in place a structure for these cameras, it remains deficient in strong standards which would provide for timely release of footage relating to incidents that the public should have quick access to, including in situations where there has been serious use of force.” ACCESS/Rhode Island includes the ACLU of Rhode Island, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Rhode Island Press Association, Common Cause Rhode Island, and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. The existing policy has “a vague and imprecise expected timeframe” to release footage when there is a serious use of force and doesn’t encourage prompt release, ACCESS/Rhode Island said. The coalition encouraged “robust standards for release to the public of high-interest or highly publicized incidents.”
All Police Departments Statewide to Utilize Body-Worn Cameras, Except One | UpriseRI 10.13.22
ACCESS/Rhode Island is a coalition of non-profit organizations working to ensure the work of our government is transparent that includes the ACLU of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Currently, the policy only provides a vague and imprecise expected timeframe for release of such footage and does not encourage prompt release,” continued ACCESS/Rhode Island in their statement. “Attorney General Neronha appropriately noted (in a news conference yesterday afternoon announcing the awarding of grants to police departments for the use of body cameras) that the public expects to see what is happening on the streets. For this to happen, robust standards for release to the public of high-interest or highly publicized incidents must be put in place. Otherwise, this program does not provide accountability and transparency in the manner which it has been put in place to do so.”
City Hall Closes Out 200-Plus Public Records Requests, Citing Its Own Lassitude | Media Nation 10.1.22
The city is taking the position that because it never responded to previous requests, those seeking them must no longer want them. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told me by email: Up until Cotter’s reporting, Boston had a policy of automatically closing out public records requests based on its own inaction. Essentially the city was saying in at least 200 cases, because we’ve taken too long to get back to you, we’re going to assume you no longer want the records you requested. That’s one way to shut up people looking for information.
Boston Was Citing Own Lack of Action for Closing Out Public Records Requests | Boston Herald 9.24.22
Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition said he’d never heard of anything like this, and said that the city writing it off as a rare occurrence doesn’t make it any better. “Having few instances actually brings up more questions than you would have otherwise,” he told the Herald when informed of this practice. “A question I have is, how were they picking those instances?” He noted that making someone refile a records request resets all the deadlines, though the city regularly flouts those anyway. “This type of policy works against the free flow of information and works against the spirit of the public-records law,” Silverman said.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, says he’s hearing more anecdotal stories of newsrooms receiving subpoenas for reporting materials, though he says he has no data to back it up. He says a universal shield law would give newsrooms certainty about their degree of protection. “We have a class online titled, ‘What to do if you receive a subpoena,’” Silverman said. “We try to educate newsrooms about what their rights are and good practices within their newsrooms. Occasionally we’ll hear of a newsroom receiving a subpoena and they’ll comply right away not knowing exactly what their rights are or how they can respond or push back.”
Press and Civil Liberties Groups Respond to Tong Request to Project Veritas | CT Examiner 9.21.22
According to Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, using journalists for prosecutorial purposes raises free press red flags, but that Tong so far did not appear to have overstepped his authority. “No subpoenas have yet been issued,” Silverman wrote in an email to CT Examiner. “Attorney General Tong has only sent a preservation letter that, by itself, doesn’t compel disclosure of any materials.” But Silverman also raised questions about whether Project Veritas, given its unknown involvement in the investigation, would be protected by the state’s Shield Law. “If subpoenas are ultimately sent, these questions would need to be answered to determine whether the shield law applies or how appropriate AG Tong’s preservation order may or may not have been in the first place.”
The Race for the Future of Transparency in Mass. | Dig Boston 8.31.22
“While much-needed improvements were made to the public records law in 2016, more change is needed,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It’s time to consider additional reforms that would give the public more power to enforce the law. The solution may be as simple as giving the supervisor of records authority to sue agencies on behalf of requesters.” . . . “There are many lessons we can learn from what has worked—and what has not—in other states,” said Silverman, the NEFAC director. “We need to start taking a closer look at what more can be done here in Massachusetts.”
Lifting Secrecy Veil Candidates’ Winning Message | The Lowell Sun 8.21.22
Candidates truly committed to changing the status quo should enlist like-minded entities like the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and enlightened legislators to enact legislation that includes the Legislature and governor’s office in public-records oversight laws.
Secure Funds for Hybrid Public Meeting Format — Override Baker’s Veto | Boston Globe 8.17.22
Our organizations and several others, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the New England First Amendment Coalition, strongly urge the Legislature to override the governor’s veto and assure wide access to local government.
Infighting, Obfuscation, Delay: The Chaotic End of Massachusetts’ Legislative Session | Boston Globe 8.8.22
That lack of transparency was “not surprising at all, but no less disappointing,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Anytime a Legislature shuts out the public from its process, we’re all left wondering how and why it made the decisions it did,” Silverman added.
Crash Questions: Pembroke Police Officer’s OUI Case Disappears (video) | NBC10 Boston 8.6.22
“These hearings are a real problem. They’ve become a stain on our court system,” said Justin Silverman with the New England First Amendment Coalition. “They’ve become a way for those in government, law enforcement, or those who are well-connected to evade justice and accountability.” The entire clerk magistrate process takes place behind closed doors and if charges don’t go forward, the case remains hidden from the public. In Burns’ case, after hearing testimony, the clerk found “no cause” for either criminal charge, according to a document in his internal affairs file. No other reasoning about the clerk’s decision was provided. “That’s why this is such a big problem,” Silverman said. “We need to know what’s happening in our court system. Even if charges are dropped, we need to know why.”
“The kind of directive, like the one we saw at the meeting, to tell the press how to do their job and to report or not report information provided at this meeting, is very much in violation of the First Amendment,” NEFAC’s Justin Silverman said.
Isle La Motte Grapples with Pride Flag Burnings, Spate of Vandalism | VTDigger 8.3.22
At the meeting Monday — a public event — she also asked news reporters in attendance not to publish the names of residents who spoke, citing the same reason. Graziano’s comments prompted a complaint Wednesday from the New England First Amendment Coalition, whose executive director, Justin Silverman, called it “a type of prior restraint” in a letter addressed to the selectboard.
Worcester’s Wasteful, Never-Ending War on Police Transparency | Dig Boston 7.21.22
“Worcester residents deserve to know why the city made the decisions it did,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “While officials may be able to hide records behind attorney-client privilege, they are not required to do so. They can and should provide more transparency.” Silverman continued: “The city acted in bad faith by withholding police records and then proceeded to spend a significant amount of tax dollars needlessly litigating the Telegram case. Those who made the decisions to do so must be held accountable. But that accountability will never occur unless we know more about why those decisions were made in the first place.”
There’s Good News for Town Officials and Citizens Who Prefer Remote Meetings | The Anchor 7.19.22
Beacon Hill Gets Most of It Right on Public Meetings | The Sun Chronicle 7.14.22
The latest update by the House was greeted warmly by a group that includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition, Boston Center for Independent Living, and New England Newspaper & Press Association, which said it was happy that lawmakers appreciate “the importance of remote access to public meetings.” “Across the Commonwealth, remote access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in state and local government, and has lowered longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations,” the group said in a statement. “We urge the Legislature to ensure that the final legislation includes a permanent requirement for hybrid public meetings.”
Justin Silverman, Executive Director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said he does not second guess the news outlets’ decisions to release the recording. “The more information and the more insight we can provide into a tragedy like this one, particularly when that information gives us a better sense as to how our law enforcement acted, that is more reason to provide that information,” Silverman said. Silverman predicts if a similar tragedy were to occur in Maine, law enforcement agencies would likely be hesitant to release surveillance footage during an open investigation. “If this were to, God forbid happen in Maine, you would very likely see law enforcement agencies being hesitant to release this kind of information until they’ve been able to go through it and make sure all their officers acted appropriately and that there’s nothing in there that could potentially embarrass them or show they didn’t do the job that they should have,” Silverman said.
House Approves Veterans Bill, Pandemic Policy Extensions | State House News Service 7.8.22
After the House’s vote, a group that includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition, Boston Center for Independent Living, and New England Newspaper & Press Association said it was happy that lawmakers appreciate “the importance of remote access to public meetings.” “Across the Commonwealth, remote access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in state and local government, and has lowered longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations,” the group said in a statement. “We urge the legislature to ensure that the final legislation includes a permanent requirement for hybrid public meetings.”
The 2022 New England Muzzle Awards | GBH News 6.29.22
Bellows told state legislators that the new law would ban 421 of the 120,000 vanity plates in circulation. Plates could be recalled for obscene language, racist content and references to genitalia, among other things. “You can’t escape the proliferation of the F-word,” Bellows told an interviewer, but added: “If you can’t say it on the 6 o’clock news, it shouldn’t be on a license plate. If you really want an offensive slogan on your car, then you can use a bumper sticker.” . . . Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the guidelines are “unconstitutionally broad and vague,” thus inviting lawsuits against the state.
Ideas on Tap: Free Speech and Social Media (video) | Concord Public Television 6.27.22
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman joined Anna Brown at Citizens Count, Professor John Greabe at Franklin Pierce School of Law, Professor Meg Mott and NHPR’s Nick Capodice for a conversation about the First Amendment and social media regulation.
How Often is Vermont’s Open Meeting Law Violated? | WCAX 6.10.22
Justin Silverman, with the New England First Amendment Coalition, says the lack of apparent data could pose a risk. “We as citizens need to know how many complaints are being filed against agencies under the open meeting law each year,” Silverman said. “The Open Meeting Law is an incredible tool for citizens to use to get that kind of access to its government. However, this law does more than create transparency in government. Silverman says it protects active participation in these meetings. “It’s important for all public officials to provide that opportunity for their constituents to be heard at these meetings and vocalize their thoughts and opinions on important matters,” Silverman continued.
Wu Not Always Living Up to Transparency Promises | CommonWealth 6.5.22
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said he was dismayed by the city’s recent track record. “There’s no excuse for ignoring public records requests,” he said. “Citizens are entitled to transparency. The law requires it. If the city is unable to manage the volume of requests it receives, then it needs to make changes to how it operates. It needs to find a way to make open government more of a priority.”
A Victory in the Constant Fight for the Public’s Right to Know | Bangor Daily News 6.2.22
“Whether we grant the state’s public records ombudsman powers to enforce the law or provide statutory incentives such as mandatory attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs, we need better tools to protect the public’s right to know,” Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, wrote in a BDN column earlier this year. That is just as true after this ruling as it was months ago. Because, unfortunately as we’ve seen in this case and other instances, officials and institutions often lean on the litany of exceptions that can limit the FOAA’s reach. Rather than erring on the side of disclosure and transparency, we’ve observed an inclination to stretch these exceptions and withhold information.
Keep Public Meetings Online | The Sun Chronicle 5.31.22
Eight groups — the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the Disability Law Center, the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England Newspaper and Press Association — have joined together to support the effort to make hybrid participation permanent. The groups argue that remote meetings preserved public bodies’ ability to operate, but also “opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public and many people who had previously been shut out,” including seniors with mobility issues, people with disabilities, parents with young children, people with elder care and adult care responsibilities, people who can’t drive or afford taxis or rideshares, people with chronic medical conditions, and people who just want to know more about their government. “Remote access is the latest instance of universal design — alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other features — that began as accommodations and expanded to universal popularity,” the groups wrote. “Like these innovations and others emerging during the pandemic, remote access to public meetings should become a permanent feature.”
Can HUPD Reform? | The Harvard Crimson 5.29.22
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman said HUPD can make incident reports available to the public while still protecting sensitive information. “You can address that concern by allowing for certain information to be withheld or for certain redactions to be made, similar to how that can occur under our state’s public records law,” Silverman said. “They can continue to write very detailed reports.”
Mandatory Virtual Access to MA State Government Ends July 15 | MetroWest Daily News 5.17.22
“Over these last two and a half years of remote access, they have been able to engage with government and engage with their elected officials in ways they never could before,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It’s not just about government accountability, it’s also about equity and fairness in making sure that all citizens — regardless of their circumstances — have an opportunity to engage with government and see how their officials are acting on their behalf,” Silverman said. . . . Even though “remote access has been a game changer and attendance has increased,” in-person access allows another level of accountability that can’t always be achieved remotely,” said Silverman. Remote meetings have the potential for public officials to “stifle public conversation, to limit public comment, and to really restrict the ways in which the public can engage with them online,” he said. For Silverman, the goal is to “provide more access” and ensure that “all citizens have access” and to “not resort back” to the practices in place prior to the pandemic, where a “large segment of the population” were “shut out” from in-person government proceedings.
Investigation Into Canaan Police Use of Force Released | Union Leader 5.14.22
Authorities have released a 17-page report into the use of force by former Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza during a November 2017 arrest. The release follows a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling last month. The high court determined that the investigation by an outside consultant into an excessive force complaint is a public record that should be released under the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law. It contains a small number of redactions. The ACLU-New Hampshire represented the Lebanon-based Valley News newspaper in fighting for the release. The Union Leader Corp. and the New England First Amendment Coalition filed an amicus brief on behalf of the newspaper.
A Win for the Public: Right to Know Prevails | Union Leader 4.29.22
Attorney Gregory V. Sullivan, representing the Union Leader and the New England First Amendment Coalition, filed a friend of the court brief, also arguing on behalf of the public’s right to know what is being done in the public’s name.
Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath Honored with First Amendment Award | Frontline 4.13.22
On Wednesday night, FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath was honored at the 12th annual New England First Amendment Awards with the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award. According to the NEFAC’s official announcement, the Stephen Hamblett Award is named after the late publisher of The Providence Journal and is given each year to an individual who has “promoted, defended, or advocated for the First Amendment throughout his or her career.”
A Webster resident used New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law to unearth evidence of the illegal sale of town land to a public official last year. Tara Gunnigle and her husband Jon Pearson’s quest for public records led to the resignation of Webster’s former town treasurer. Now, she’s being recognized by the New England First Amendment Coalition for her work.
T&G Police Lawsuit Wins Freedom of Information Award From NEFAC | Telegram & Gazette 4.5.22
The coalition — a nonprofit that works to defend First Amendment rights throughout New England — cited the newspaper’s “landmark” win that resulted in the first award of punitive damages in Massachusetts under a law penalizing entities that withhold records in bad faith. “This is a shining example of accountability journalism and an inspiration to other newsrooms fighting their own public record battles,” Justin Silverman, the coalition’s executive director, wrote in a statement.
Governor’s Council Fades to Black | The Boston Globe 4.4.22
And into this fray comes a coalition that believes it’s actually a good thing for the cameras to keep on rolling. It includes the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Disability Law Center, and the League of Women Voters, all looking to promote a little transparency. “The people deserve to know what their government is doing, including the Governor’s Council’s important work,” the group wrote in a letter following this week’s meeting. “The decision to discontinue online streaming of Governor’s Council meetings should be reversed and remote access should be made permanent and routine for all public meetings.”
A Pandemic-Driven Change Worth Keeping | The Harvard Press 4.1.22
Co-sponsored by more than five dozen legislators, including Harvard’s Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Dan Sena, the measure has the backing of the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the Massachusetts ACLU, and the New England First Amendment Coalition. The bill would require boards and committees to offer both remote and in-person access to their proceedings, though it contains provisions for public bodies that due to “economic hardship” and “despite best efforts” are unable to comply.
Motion to Restore Governor’s Council Livestream Dies Without a Second | Boston Herald 3.30.22
Several organizations have expressed support for restoring the livestream, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, and the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Remote access has opened the door to civic engagement for many people who had previously been shut out,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The decision to discontinue online streaming of Governor’s Council meetings should be reversed, and remote access should be made permanent and routine for all public meetings.”
How to Make a Public Records Request? Ask Your Town Clerk | Wicked Local 3.30.22
In April, the New England First Amendment Coalition will honor the Worcester Telegram & Gazette with its 2022 Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award. The FOI Award is given each year to a New England journalist or team of journalists for a body of work from the previous calendar year that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law, according to a statement from the coalition. Preference is given to those who overcome significant official resistance. The Telegram & Gazette began what would become a multi-year legal battle against the Worcester Police Department for access to internal affairs reports in 2018. A judge ruled in its favor last year and in January of this year awarded punitive damages — the first time a court has done so since the Massachusetts public records law was reformed in 2016, according to the coalition.
Mass. Lawmakers Discuss Remote Voting Beyond Pandemic Emergency | State House News Service 3.28.22
“Across the Commonwealth, remote access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in state and local government, and has lowered longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England Newspaper and Press Association said in a joint statement last week.
Expand Ability to View Public Meetings Remotely | The Lowell Sun 3.26.22
Given the interest generated by its online availability, a range of groups, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, have urged the Governor’s Council to resume streaming their weekly meetings.
More Reminders of the Shortcomings of Maine’s Freedom of Access Law | Bangor Daily News 3.24.22
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, discussed this case in a recent BDN column along with a recent Maine Freedom of Information Coalition survey that asked Maine law enforcement agencies to provide the number of complaints made against their officers since 2016. Nearly half of these agencies failed to provide any information or respond at all, despite FOAA requirements, Silverman said. . . . “Under the current law, there is little recourse when that data are denied other than to file a lawsuit. Most citizens (and most newsrooms) lack the time and money needed to sue agencies for records they are entitled to under FOAA,” Silverman said. “Whether we grant the state’s public records ombudsman powers to enforce the law or provide statutory incentives such as mandatory attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs, we need better tools to protect the public’s right to know.”
Pressure Mounts on Governor’s Council to Restore Livestream, Causing Tense Meeting | Boston Herald 3.23.22
Since the Herald broke the news earlier this month that the Council is no longer livestreaming, several organizations have called on the group to restore its livestream. Those groups include the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.
A Newton Couple Were Ordered to Remove Their Political Yard Signs | The Boston Globe 3.23.22
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said political speech “is at the very top of the spectrum of protection” under the Constitution. “Under the First Amendment, they as government officials should not be in a position where they’re deciding what is, or is not, permissible speech,” Silverman said. . . . Silverman, with the First Amendment Coalition, said that generally, governments shouldn’t be setting the rules for free speech. “If there is a bedrock principle to the First Amendment, it’s that government should not be determining for us what is offensive, what is vulgar, and what speech should not be said,” Silverman said.
NEFAC’s Justin Silverman Discusses Sunshine Week (audio) | The Marcus Ferro Show 3.19.22
Marcus Ferro at WBSM-New Bedford interviews Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition about Sunshine Week and why it’s important to demand a more accessible and transparent government.
Massachusetts Questioned on Listing Problem Police Officers | Associated Press 3.19.22
The New England First Amendment Coalition said there needs to be a baseline expectation about what kind of consistent information the public can get about police officers.
Nesi’s Notes | WPRI 3.19.22
It’s Sunshine Week — and not just because of that U.S. Senate vote. The New England First Amendment Coalition’s Justin Silverman laid out why transparency matters in this op-ed: “Every American should be waving the banner for government transparency. The consequences of secrecy affect not just our ability to have good-faith debates about the issues that matter most, but they also limit our ability to oversee government and the work it does on our behalf. When it comes to transparency, we’re all stakeholders.” Silverman will also be moderating a virtual forum on Wednesday about the future of online public meetings in Rhode Island, featuring John Marion, Scott Pickering, Liz Tanner and Jordan Day.
Groups Call for Making Online Meeting Access Permanent | State House News Service 3.18.22
The ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and New England Newspaper and Press Association also signed the letter, delivered as part of “Sunshine Week” efforts to promote open government and access to public information.
N.H. Released a List of Problem Police Officers. No List Exists in Massachusetts | Telegram & Gazette 3.18.22
“There needs to be a baseline expectation from the public about what kind of consistent information we can get about our police officers,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said Thursday. . . . Silverman, the NEFAC leader, said it is important for state leaders to prioritize the consistent release of public information, especially concerning police who have broken public trust. “We have a right to know who those officers are,” he said. “They’re working in our communities, and if we don’t know, it’s really difficult for us to have confidence in the system, and to hold them accountable.”
Shedding Light, Promoting Truth are Right in Our Wheelhouse | Newtown Bee 3.17.22
In closing, we are reminded by our colleague and New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman that the mission of Sunshine Week is to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. The sunshine reference is attributed to US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who famously wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This is the idea behind state public record and open meeting laws, as well as our federal Freedom of Information Act. Government transparency is a non-partisan principle that transcends who’s in office or which political party is in control.
Let the Sun Shine in On Open Government and Freedom of Information | Daily Item 3.16.22
We join the New England Newspaper & Press Association and New England First Amendment Coalition in marking “Sunshine Week” focused on open and easily-accessible public meetings. . . . Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman expanded on this goal by noting how late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used a metaphor to describe government transparency’s importance. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Brandeis said. Open government and unfettered freedom of information, in his view, are the best ways to keep democracy free from corruption and despotism.
When Government Controls All Information, Citizens Aren’t Free | Keene Sentinel 3.15.22
During this year’s Sunshine Week, March 13 through 19, we should remember, as the New England First Amendment Coalition points out, that “no matter where we stand on a particular topic, we all need accurate information to shape our opinions and best advocate for ourselves.” . . . Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors — now News Leaders Association. Its mission, NEFAC reminds us, is to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. The sunshine reference is attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Informed citizens are the best defense against government corruption. When they cannot be physically present to gain access to meetings and records, a free press should be able to stand in for them. Journalists are among the most frequent filers of public records requests, NEFAC says. . . . Access to information is something we in the United States take for granted. “But despite the mandated sunshine, shadows persist,” writes Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC. “Public record request deadlines are often ignored. Inadequate staffing and request backlogs result in delays. Documents are excessively redacted. Citizens are shut out of public meetings. The flow of information can be slowed to a glacial pace.”
Government Accountability Workshops Held During Sunshine Week | Concord Monitor 3.14.22
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for the “right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But what does that mean and how does it work? On March 14, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and the New England First Amendment Coalition are celebrating Sunshine Week with an expert, online panel discussion, Keeping the Light On: Holding Government Accountable.
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In honor of Sunshine Week, NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman wrote an op/ed explaining why Americans should all agree on government transparency despite the nation’s increasing polarization. The op/ed was published by many newspapers and online media outlets throughout the week.
Councilors Finally Approve ARPA Money with Virtually No Public Discussion | The New Bedford Light 3.10.22
Here’s what attorney Jonathan Albano on behalf of the New England First Amendment Coalition said about the council’s vote to take the detour into the email averages for spending the public’s money: “The Mass Open Meeting (law) applies to any communications, including email between a quorum of members. Here, council members basically ‘voted’ by sending individual emails to one councilor. That seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meeting Law.”
Governor’s Council Ends Meeting Streams | Boston Herald 3.9.22
“That’s certainly a step backward, as far as government transparency is concerned,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, adding that live streaming technology has increased access for those with disabilities, busy journalists and working parents, for example.
NEFAC Speaks About Journalists’ Rights to Public Records in a World of Secrecy | Daily Collegian 3.9.22
The New England First Amendment Coalition’s Executive Director Justin Silverman spoke to students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday about journalists’ first amendment rights and access to public records. . . . Silverman started his interactive presentation by asking the audience to shout the five freedoms aloud: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. He cited a theory that states how each of the five freedoms work together “as a blueprint,” Silverman said. “Ideally these five freedoms all work together to give us the freedom we need to create the country that best serves us.”
Let the Sun Shine: Public Programs Set | Union Leader 3.6.22
Sunshine Week shines a light on the importance of open government and the dangers when government officials work in secret. Next Monday night, March 14, at 6 p.m., the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and the New England First Amendment Coalition will co-host an online discussion. Its theme is “Keeping the Lights On: Holding Government Accountable.”
NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman discusses in an op/ed a recent survey of Maine law enforcement agencies, the concerning results and what steps can be taken in the future to improve police transparency in the state.
Michelle Wu Seeks to Ban Protesters From Demonstrating at Her Home | Boston Herald 2.28.22
Wu has some First Amendment law on her side, said Justin Silverman New England First Amendment Coalition, but he added that enforcement is a concern. “Even if it’s constitutional, it can be difficult for police to arrive on a scene with protesters and for them to determine if protesters are on the move or camped out in front of a specific residence,” Silverman said. “This type of ordinance can be difficult to enforce.”
On the First Amendment: Q&A with NEFAC’s Justin Silverman | Suffolk Law Alumni Magazine 2022
“It’s very easy to hear potentially dangerous speech and immediately call for more laws. But what we need to remember is that the more power we give to the government, the more likelihood there is for abuse. That’s really the crux of the First Amendment. It’s there to protect us from the government. So we have to consider, despite how well-intended any law could be, how is the government going to use that law? And ultimately, what’s the risk of that law being used against any kind of speech that the government finds objectionable, whether or not it’s actually incitement?”
Questions Persist in Case of Former Southcoast Health President Keith Hovan | The New Bedford Light 2.24.22
“The only way we can make sure that these hearings are operating in a fair and just way is if the public is able to oversee them in a way where the court is accountable for the decisions it makes,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. . . . Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand public access to government, said the working group’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, but that they don’t provide a full solution. “The solution is more in line with what Representative Cabral is proposing,” Silverman said, “because it prioritizes transparency and our right to know what is occurring in our courts.” Though recognizing the COVID-19 pandemic has made things challenging, he said changes to how the state’s court system conducts these proceedings are long overdue. “You had the big series reported by the Boston Globe that showed all the inequities within the system,” Silverman said, “and here we are several years after that without any meaningful changes made.”
Boston Seeing Spike in Records Requests — and Complaints About Responses | Boston Herald 2.20.22
Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition said the uptick in requests is no excuse for not responding to them. “That could be a factor, but if the law was being followed, there wouldn’t be very many appeals in the first place,” said Silverman, who said he’d heard complaints about Boston on this front from various reporters.
New R.I. Order No Longer Requires Remote Access for Many In-Person Meetings | The Boston Globe 2.18.22
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said Rhode Island has seen the benefits of remote access and participation for those unable to attend in-person meetings over the past two years. “Under this order, those concerned about COVID and choosing not to attend meetings can be shut out entirely,” Silverman said. “Those with disabilities, family commitments, work obligations, and other conflicts can also be denied access. Remote participation is not only about safety, but also about equity. This order simply doesn’t go far enough to guarantee the access we need.”
New McKee Order on Public Meetings Scales Back Remote Access | WPRI 2.18.22
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said remote access is an equity issue. “During the last two years we have seen the benefits of remote access and participation for those unable to attend in-person meetings,” Silverman said. “Under this order, those concerned about COVID and choosing not to attend meetings can be shut out entirely. Those with disabilities, family commitments, work obligations and other conflicts can also be denied access. Remote participation is not only about safety, but also about equity.”
Galvin Bill Would Subject Governor’s Office to Public Records Law | CommonWealth Magazine 2.1.22
Justin Silverman. the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, believes that Healey’s reply does not fully respond to the question. “Healey’s response is ambiguous at best,” Silverman said. “It . . . does nothing to rebuke the use of Lambert to maintain secrecy within the governor’s office. There’s no reassurance here that, if she’s elected governor, Healey won’t cite the Lambert decision just as previous administrations have done.”
Judge Rules Worcester Acted in Bad Faith, Adds Punitive Damages | Telegram & Gazette 2.1.22
The city, whose political leaders often tout transparency, repeatedly questioned the newspaper’s motives for requesting the information, at one point alleging in a court filing that the paper made the request under the “guise” of its role as a societal watchdog. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), called an argument of that type “completely disrespectful of the role that journalists play in our community.” Silverman, whose organization defends and promotes public access to government, said Friday that while the ruling is a win for journalism, the historic nature of the punitive award underscores a grim reality. “We (at NEFAC) deal with people every day who are being stymied by public agencies that aren’t following the law,” he said, but because they don’t have the resources to file lawsuits, such conduct is never fully scrutinized. Silverman said while he’s encouraged by the $100,000 the judge awarded the newspaper in legal fees — an award the 2016 law contemplated by creating a presumption in favor of awarding such fees in successful lawsuits — most people denied records can’t afford to spend the time or money placing such a bet. And even though the T&G got the records it requested, Silverman noted, doing so took three years. “We need additional reforms so we don’t have to go through this multi-year process to begin with,” he said.
Concerns Emerge Over Bill Proposing Privacy Amendment | Portland Press Herald 1.27.22
Judith Meyer, representing the Maine Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the New England Newspaper & Press Association, the Maine Association of Broadcasters and the Society of Professional Journalists Maine, filed an objection to the bill on Thursday. “We understand the need for personal privacy, particularly from government intrusion, but we have grave concerns that the language contained here is overly broad and will implicate First-Amendment protected activities and entitlements under the Freedom of Access Act. Logistically, it will create havoc for businesses and organizations that collect and use personal information,” Meyer wrote in Thursday’s filing with the Judiciary Committee. Meyer said her groups recommend the legislation be revised to address “only governmental intrusion upon one’s privacy,” and not private intrusion. The term “private intrusion” can be interpreted to include the First Amendment-protected activities of news organizations, she said. Journalists rely on personal information, personal communications and a person’s thoughts as a standard part of news gathering.
Taking a different view was Justin Silverman, a lawyer who is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Just because Loughner didn’t use the map as motivation, [that] doesn’t mean that readers of the NYT weren’t told that he did — which arguably is the same as being told that Palin incited the violence and is responsible for that violence by publishing her map,” he said in an email. Silverman added: “By incorrectly saying that Loughner was motivated by the map, isn’t the NYT also incorrectly saying that Palin incited Loughner by publishing it?” Nevertheless, Silverman said the Times should prevail if it is able to prove that its errors resulted from “sloppy journalism” rather than actual malice.
An attorney specializing in First Amendment law, Greg Sullivan, said Seven Days’ story is protected by the Fair Report Privilege — a defense to journalists who fairly summarize government reports or official statements. “Even if the government action contains defamatory material, the Fair Report Privilege will protect the press,” said Sullivan, who teaches First Amendment and media law at Suffolk University in Boston and is a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition. The Vermont Supreme Court has recognized this privilege, Sullivan said, and in this case, Vermont law would be applied even though Leise’s lawsuit is filed in federal court. The privilege would apply regardless of how the media obtained the official reports or statements, he said.
Principal Who Went on Leave Last March Appears to Still Be on Payroll | MetroWest Daily News 1.18.22
Refusing to comply is illegal under Massachusetts law, but public officials rarely face meaningful penalties because the supervisor cannot enforce her own orders. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition in Westborough, said the situation displays a weakness of Massachusetts public records law. “You have a public records request being made, you have a denial inappropriately given, you have the Supervisor (of Public Records) saying these records must be released, and you have an agency at least partially disregarding that order,” said Silverman, who lives in Wayland. “This is one of the challenges we all face under the current law and it shows how difficult it is to access information we’re entitled to.” . . . Silverman, the public records advocate in Wayland, said not much can be done now, besides the newspaper going to court and fighting an expensive legal battle. “There’s a law here that’s not being complied with,” said Silverman. “That’s a problem and not something that we should tolerate as citizens.”
Pandemic-Driven Changes to Open Meeting Law Should Be Made Permanent | CommonWealth 1.17.22
In an op/ed, NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman describes how requiring both online and in-person access to government meetings will help Massachusetts journalists and the communities they cover. NEFAC endorsed An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings (H.3152/S.2082) which requires both remote and in-person access to government proceedings.
“To have this many police departments not respond at all I think is a gross violation of the public’s trust,” New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman said. Silverman said he was taken aback by the overwhelming lack of transparency. . . . Silverman expressed support for regulations to maintain data but also stressed the importance of existing freedom of information laws, which numerous departments flouted. “First, we need to make sure that law enforcement agencies are following the law, right? There’s no excuse for not responding to a public records request,” Silverman said. . . . Silverman was adamant that the information requested is critical for transparency. “What this study does present for those in Maine is an opportunity to acknowledge that we’re not getting the information that we need so let’s do something about it,” Silverman said.
McKee Signs Executive Order to Allow Remote Meetings Amid COVID Outbreak | The Boston Globe 1.6.22
The ACCESS/RI coalition called the issue “a matter of great urgency for open government.” They called on McKee to reinstate an order that would require live-streaming of public meetings and remote public participation. “Many residents of the state – in recognition of the large number of breakthrough infections being caused by Omicron – are legitimately and understandably reluctant to physically attend public meetings,” the coalition wrote in a letter to McKee in December. “Particularly for the state’s large elderly and immunocompromised population, even being masked and fully vaccinated is no guarantee of protection in crowded meetings in indoor settings.” ACCESS/RI includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.