Remarks of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy at NEFAC’s 2016 New England First Amendment Awards

The remarks were given by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy after accepting the New England First Amendment Coalition’s 2016 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award. The award was given as part of NEFAC’s annual awards luncheon on Feb. 19 in Boston. More info on the luncheon can be found here.

Thank you, Mike, for that gracious introduction.  And you know, it’s just so fitting that the Freedom of Information award now will carry your name.  You are absolutely fearless, relentless . . . and merciless — and I mean that in a GOOD way, Mike — in digging for information. Your dad was one of my professors at St. Michael’s College.  I remember his insistence on thoroughness and accuracy. He would be proud of his son who embraced and built on those values.

Thanks also to the New England First Amendment Coalition, to all of the Coalition’s partners, and to Tom Fiedler, for all the important work you do.  It’s an honor to share this podium with two other New England FOIA defenders and users, Jenifer McKim and Michael Champa.

It’s also great to see so many Vermonters and other friends in the room, including Al Getler, publisher and president of the Burlington Free Press.

As the son of Vermont printers, I feel like I am among family.  I learned from a young age the importance of the freedom of speech.  To me, the First Amendment is our most sacred.  It is the foundation of our democracy and our way of life.

By guaranteeing a free press, the First Amendment makes possible an informed electorate — which New Englanders know a thing or two about.

New England has made an indelible mark on the history of courageous American journalism.  Elijah Lovejoy, who refused to stop publishing abolitionist material in his newspaper, paid with his life and was our nation’s first martyr to press freedom.

We also follow in the footsteps of such greats as William Llloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator.  And such workhorses as Steven Hamblett, for whom this honor is named.  I think of the late, great Tony Lewis.  I think of one of my favorite cartoonists, the incomparable Jeff Danziger.  I think of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer David Moats of Vermont’s Rutland Daily Herald.  He and The Herald courageously illuminated Vermont’s debate over civil unions.

When I think of the First Amendment’s importance, I also think about freedom of religion.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Vermont from Italy in the last part of the 19th Century.  Vermont was a different place back then.  My grandparents were often met with suspicion because they were seen as “papists” and they spoke a “strange” language — even though my grandfather spoke many languages.

Catholics were not looked upon favorably and there was no Catholic church in my grandparents’ town.  So every few weeks, on a Sunday, a Catholic priest from another town would come to my grandparents’ home.  They would pull the blinds and all of the Italians in the area would come to hear mass.

My father’s parents came to Vermont from Ireland.  When my grandfather, Patrick J. Leahy, died in the early part of the 20th Century, my father was just a teenager.

He had to leave school and seek work in Montpelier to support his mother and younger sister.  Many businesses had signs that said “No Irish Need Apply,” or more directly, “No Catholic Need Apply.”

My father persevered, and eventually he and my mother began a weekly newspaper — the Waterbury Record.  On Saint Patrick’s Day, they would print the paper in green ink.

My parents then ran a small printing business, the Leahy Press, which still exists.

In our family, the First Amendment was an article of faith.  We were taught that people have a right to practice any religion they want — or none if they want.  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.

As journalists, you live out that commitment every day.  Like legislating, it is not always easy work.  But the determination of a grizzled news team can have a tremendous impact.

It was the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that uncovered years of abuse that took place in the Boston Archdiocese.

That reporting rocked the world and led to revelations of sexual abuse in dioceses across the country — including in Vermont.

The significance of the Globe’s coverage cannot be overstated.  Nor can the importance of a free and open press.

But at times of great fear and stress in our nation’s history, some have strayed from this core value.

We must remember what happens when leaders succumb to the politics of fear and lose sight of our fundamental American values.  Joseph McCarthy did just that when he leveled an attack on anyone who challenged him, including journalists.  J. Edgar Hoover did the same when he targeted Martin Luther King and those he suspected might be gay.

We are a long way from the days of McCarthy and Hoover, yet today there are some who are again stoking fear for
political gain.

Those who challenge these fear tactics will be attacked, including journalists.  But we have an obligation to stand up for American values in these moments.

That is why after a leading presidential candidate declared that we should ban all Muslims from entering this country, I offered an amendment in the Judiciary Committee plainly stating that America does not bar individuals based on their religion.

This simple, straightforward amendment – which most members of the Committee supported – underscored the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Freedom of the press is also critical to fighting against human rights abuses abroad.  Without a free press, corruption and erosion of the rule of law lack public accountability.

In Ecuador, President Correa has waged a relentless campaign to silence his critics.

His government went so far as to bring a lawsuit against a popular political cartoonist and to “dissolve” an organization that monitors freedom of expression in the country.

I have repeatedly spoken out against these repressive tactics.  I support individuals like Vietnam’s human rights and free press advocate Le Quoc Quan.  He and other Vietnamese citizens have been jailed for exercising their right – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to free expression.

The Committee to Protect Journalists documents that 199 journalists were jailed last year.  China and Egypt were the worst offenders.

In the past decade 700 journalists have been killed for trying to bring information to the public, an average of one death each week.  In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished.

As a prosecutor and as a senator, I am committed not just to support the ideals of the First Amendment, but to protect them.

My first vote in the Senate was in favor of the Church Committee which provided vital oversight of government surveillance.

And my commitment to transparency and accountability has not stopped since that vote more than four decades ago.

After years of fighting to rein in the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data, we finally secured passage last year of the USA FREEDOM Act.

And our bipartisan efforts to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act will continue because we have seen how essential it is to ensuring a free and open society.

We live in times that test government of, by, and for the people.  Dark money floods our political process.  Cynical efforts to squeeze access to the right to vote dampen public participation.

And the crucial third leg, government accountability, requires unending struggle to defend the public’s right to know.  Sunshine, not secrecy, should be the default setting.

Living up to these principles is much harder than it sounds.  War correspondents put their lives on the line to tell the important stories from conflict zones.  Repressive regimes are often able to silence, or kill, courageous reporters with impunity.

Media outlets have to do more with less, but work hard every day to make sure their readers are informed.

And all of us have to be vigilant against efforts to stifle the freedoms promised in the First Amendment.  You and I know that it is a fight worth fighting.

Last Saturday, we learned of the sudden passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.  His contributions to the protections of the First Amendment were remarkable.  I was saddened to learn of Justice Scalia’s passing.

Today thousands of Americans will pay their respects in the very building where so many historic arguments were heard over the reach and meaning of the First Amendment.

I recall the pride in the Italian-American community when he was nominated to the Supreme Court.  It shows how far we have come from the days of “No Catholics Need Apply.”

Unfortunately, within hours of Justice Scalia’s passing, the Senate Republican majority leader declared that the Senate would not fulfill its Constitutional duty to consider a Supreme Court nominee until after the election.

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.

It is false to say that Supreme Court justices do not get confirmed in presidential election years.

Although vacancies during an election year are rare, more than a dozen Supreme Court justices have been confirmed in presidential election years.  The most recent one was in President Reagan’s final year in office.

In the coming weeks, President Obama will nominate an individual after consulting with the Senate.  For over 100 years, the Senate has taken action on every Supreme Court nominee to fill a vacancy regardless of whether the nomination was made in a presidential election year.  This should be no different.

Once the president selects a nominee, the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold a hearing and report the nominee to the full Senate for a vote.

I have served in the Senate for more than four decades, and on the Judiciary Committee for 36 years.  During that time, Supreme Court nominees have always been treated differently compared to other nominees — they have always received a hearing and they have always been reported to the full Senate.

During my time on Committee, we have never refused to send a nominee to the full Senate for consideration.  I expect Senate Republicans to uphold this bipartisan tradition for the next Supreme Court nominee.

This son of Vermont printers stands with all of you here today in support of our Constitution, and of a free press and free expression.

I am grateful to have partners in the New England First Amendment Coalition who I know will keep fighting for our First Amendment rights.  I applaud you for your work, and I thank you.