Society of Professional Journalists rally for public records

About 30 Journalists, students, and public record advocates stood on the steps of the Massachusetts State House Jan. 21 in the freezing cold to rally for a better public records law in Massachusetts.

“We are hoping that [the Senate] is going to pass a more favorable bill than the House’s bill,” said Danielle McLean, the head of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “We just want to get some kind of compromise in the middle.”

The rally highlighted the opinions of many frustrated professionals and students, including personal accounts about ignored, dismissed public record requests. Bill Marcus, one of the main organizers of the rally and a board member at the New England Society of Professional Journalists, spoke briefly about the legislation’s status and current demands.

“The legislation is now sitting in senate and it is imperative to call senators and that is the only thing that is going to move their legislation at this point,” said Marcus. After urging individuals to reach out to senators, he gave people the opportunity to share personal accounts dealing with the blocked access.

To strengthen the public records bill, the Society of Professional Journalists has made three main demands: no fees for public record access, a 30 day response period (a change from the original 65 day period) and, if an individual wins an appeal in court about access to records, the lawyer fees must be reimbursed.

“All these changes are equally important,” said McLean. “There’s no enforcement agency right now, so this limit exists.” While the House of Representatives passed a bill in November it was not enough to completely pacify protesters.

The House bill establishes rules such as lowered public record access fees, a 60 day period to respond to a record request and refunded legal fees if citizens successfully sue for possession of records. While this represents an improvement from the original antiquated public record laws, the bill institutes a continued culture of barred access to records, through high costs and long waiting periods.

Six days after the protest the Senate Committee on Senate Ways and Means sponsored a bill that would, in certain cases, allow citizens to have their legal fees  reimbursed in the event they are forced to file a lawsuit in order to obtain public records, the Boston Globe reported. The Senate bill also gives agencies 30 days to respond to requests for documents with the option of applying for a 30 day extension.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill on February 4, which is after the print deadline for this issue of Spare Change News.

The SPJ’s push for increased access to records is purely justice, described McLean, as taxpayers have a right to public information. However, currently Massachusetts is one of the few states that requires an access fee and, additionally, it is the only state that excludes all three branches of government from the open records. “This is about caring and being proactive about your civic responsibilities,” said Marcus.

Small newspapers and freelance writers do not have the funds to pay for access fees, and when access is restricted, lawyer fees are the biggest motivator for change. The current rules, as McLean explained, creates a class system, allowing public record access only to those who can afford it. The result is a loss of information.

“One of the first casualties in any war is truth,” said Marcus, quoting 1918 U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson. “And the next is civil liberties,” he added.

Update: The Senate passed its version of the bill unanimously. The bill will now go to a committee of House-Senate negotiators to hammer out a final compromise.

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