“Actually, to me, the First Amendment is the most sacred part of our Constitution,” Leahy said at the New England First Amendment Coalition Awards Luncheon Friday, Feb. 19,. “It’s the foundation of our democracy and our way of life.”
Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, was presented the 2016 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award before about 160 people at the luncheon, which was part of the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
Strengthening the federal Freedom of Information Act has been a hallmark of Leahy’s career. He has authored the FOIA Improvement Act, which, if enacted as law, would require federal agencies to maintain a “presumption of openness” when deciding whether to release information. He authored the OPEN FOIA Act, an amendment to FOIA requiring a clear explanation about why information is withheld. Leahy also co-sponsored the Free Flow of Information Act, and authored the SPEECH (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) Act, a federal law that protects U.S. journalists sued for libel in foreign countries without free speech protection equal to the protection provided in the United States.
“Sunshine, not secrecy, should be the default setting,” Leahy said. “It’s easy to state these principles; living it is much harder than it sounds … All of us have to be vigilant because there will always be efforts to stifle the freedoms and promises of the First Amendment. ‘Just this one time we shouldn’t talk about this. Just this one thing should not be in the press.’ Baloney. The First Amendment covers all. And that’s a fight worth fighting.”
At the end of his remarks, Leahy discussed the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the Senate Republican majority leader’s declaration that the party will not consider a new Supreme Court nominee until after this year’s presidential election.
“To pre-emptively reject any consideration of the next Supreme Court justice — it’s unprecedented. It’s dangerous. I don’t want that to succeed,” said Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It only happened once in our history, where we went a year with a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and that was during and because of the Civil War.”
After the awards ceremony, Leahy fielded questions from the press, including reporters from The Boston Globe and FOX 25 News, about the Supreme Court vacancy.
Jenifer McKim and Michael A. Champa were also presented awards at the luncheon.
McKim, a member of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, received the Freedom of Information Award in recognition of her 2015 Boston Globe investigative series “Out of the Shadows.” The series explored the deaths of 110 children under the watch or previously under the watch of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families between 2009 and 2013. McKim’s work prompted Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to make changes in the department.
“What we discovered with a small team of interns and the dedicated staff here at NECIR was a series of missteps, missed opportunities, and systemic flaws that failed to save children who, in the end, had nobody to protect them,” McKim said.
It took McKim and her team nearly a year to receive information about those cases after initial requests were made, and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting is still waiting for more information to be released by the Department of Children and Families.
“We are still striving to obtain this information, and believe it is imperative to analyze the government’s ability to protect children,” McKim said. “When our stories ran, I’m gratified to say public officials did take notice.”
The state is expected to put a new system into effect soon to assess the measures being taken to protect children.
“I can assure you we will be part of that watchdog team that follows the progress,” McKim said.
McKim concluded her acceptance speech by thanking her team at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and its partners, Boston University, where the center is based; Boston radio station WBUR-FM; and The Boston Globe.
“I’m honored to work at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting,” she said.
The Freedom of Information Award McKim received now carries the name of Michael Donoghue, who retired last fall as a longtime reporter for The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press. The naming of the award after Donoghue was announced for the first time at the luncheon.
Donoghue is a staunch advocate of the First Amendment and public access to government records and meetings and a member of the board of directors of the New England First Amendment Coalition. He was present at the luncheon and introduced Leahy.
Champa, an entrepreneur and former teacher at Stoughton (Mass.) High School, was presented with the 2016 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award after pushing for documents to be released by the Weston, Mass., public school system about the education provided for special needs students. Champa has a daughter who is a special needs student, and he recognized issues in the special education system in Weston.
When the school system would not release the documents, Champa took the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court ruled in his favor Oct. 23, 2013, and the decision has since prompted action in school districts across Massachusetts to ensure that special needs students receive equal and appropriate education.
“I urge all of you to support an improved public records law,” Champa said. “Public access to these documents exposed a problem, a big problem.”
Before stepping down from the podium, Champa asked his 14-year-old daughter Caroline — the one who sparked his quest for the school records to be made public — to stand up. Champa delightedly announced Caroline had made high honor roll at school this semester and she received a round
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy gives his acceptance remarks for the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award to the audience at the New England First Amendment Coalition Awards Luncheon.
‘Sunshine, not secrecy, should be the default setting. It’s easy to state these principles; living it is much harder than it sounds … All of us have to be vigilant because there will always be efforts to stifle the freedoms and promises of the First Amendment. “Just this one time we shouldn’t talk about this. Just this one thing should not be in the press.” Baloney. The First Amendment covers all. And that’s a fight worth fighting.’
-- U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy
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