New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director speaks about journalists’ rights to public records in a world of secrecy

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”

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Collegian File Photo

By Caitlin Reardon, Collegian Staff

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.

The New England First Amendment Coalition started in 2006 when a group of journalists from the Boston Globe and Providence Journal discussed how difficult it was to get access to meetings and public records for their stories. Silverman explained how over the last ten years, the coalition’s mission has developed to address every aspect of the first amendment, as well as to help journalists.

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.”

While the first amendment gives citizens the rights to information from the courts, meetings and other public records, there are a multitude of exceptions. Silverman stated that Massachusetts’ public records law is “below average” because three essential branches of government are excluded from the records, such as the state governor, legislators and judiciary branch.

“That’s a lot of records to be kept secret,” Silverman said.

Accountability and trust are why the first amendment is so important, emphasizing the public’s right to obtain information in order to keep our government transparent. “If that accountability doesn’t exist, then how can we trust that government is going to be making good decisions on our behalf” he stated.

Journalists face difficulty in obtaining public records because of the caveats that each state’s law entails. Silverman cited Florida as having one of the best public records laws in the country as it puts the onus on the government to provide information instead of the other way around, like in Vermont. There are over 300 exemptions to Vermont’s public records law.

These exemptions make personnel, trade secrets, police records that could interfere with a current investigation and juvenile court records inaccessible. Silverman also stated that factors such as security, time, money and privacy can interfere with the public record-gathering process.

“Most of you are going to have to fight these battles yourself,” said Silverman about obtaining a record when writing a journalistic piece. Knowing the public records law and your right to information as a citizen is a tool to help combat corruption.

Attending the presentation was Professor Rodrigo Zamith, who teaches in the UMass journalism program. He said, “Journalism students today in some ways have become mini-lawyers themselves so they can advocate for their right of access to information. That means being knowledgeable about the issues that they’re likely to come across.”

Zamith recalled that when he was a reporter in Minnesota, he carried a notebook in his back pocket that listed every legal right he had as a citizen when speaking to government officials who denied him public information. “I could just take that out and immediately show them exactly where in the law it said that they had to give me that information,” he stated.

Silverman discussed real New England examples of car accident photos, shootings, emails, body camera footage and more. All of which are public record, yet were hard to come by when requested by journalists, as many officials’ “natural inclination isn’t always to be transparent,” Silverman said. But it is important to be skeptical, not cynical, he added.

Oftentimes public records requests are turned down because some information is exempt from the law, but Silverman noted that you may have the right to the other information in the record. The record, even with some redactions such as in a police report, is public information and can still be released with redactions.

“You have to start wrestling with the tension between your right to know as a journalist and these other interests so you can speak up, advocate for yourself and get the information you need about government to hold it accountable so we can trust that good decisions are being made,” he stated.

Aalianna Marietta, freshman journalism major, said she wanted to get the perspective of law with journalism. “Knowing as student journalists that we have access to those public records from the University is really valuable, and to also know the obstacles we’re going to run into in the future,” Marietta said.

Silverman also touched upon problems with keeping state and federal governments transparent through the COVID-19 pandemic, noting differences in information and data based on location, security, race and ethnicity, when “transparency was needed the most.”

The New England First Amendment Coalition provides step-by-step videos and guides on state public records laws, how to make a record request and other resources that support citizens in their quest to seek out public records.

Going forward, Silverman stressed that students must feel comfortable in arguing their right to information, ensuring that government and public officials are disinfected by truth. The coalition’s resources can be found here.

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.