A Victory for Transparency: Mass. Public Records Reform Bill Signed into Law

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | justin@nefirstamendment.org

image001Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law today legislation that will improve access to public records and provide recourse to citizens unjustly denied government information.

The New England First Amendment Coalition, a steering member of the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, has been a leader in the effort to reform the state’s current public records statute, a law not significantly updated in more than 40 years and widely considered to be one of the worst in the nation.

“This is a victory for those who value transparency and the public’s right to know,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “This new law brings respectability back to our public records statute. It will help us all stay informed and keep our government accountable.”

For several years, NEFAC has been at the forefront of the public records reform effort, working closely with fellow open government advocates such as the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Newspapers Publishers Association.

Last year, the four organizations formed a formal partnership called the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance that more than 30 other state and regional groups later joined. As a steering member of MassFOIA, NEFAC met with journalists to identify weaknesses in the current law and develop a strategy for reform. NEFAC suggested improvements to legislative leaders, wrote an op/ed arguing for those improvements and publicly testified last year in support of reform.

The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2017, and includes several improvements such as:

Appeal Process | The Supervisor of Records must provide a ruling on all appeals within 10 business days. Requestors choosing to litigate their cases may now be awarded attorney fees. While those fees are discretionary, the new law requires a presumption by the court in favor of fees.

Limiting Fees | If custodians do not respond to a request within the required 10 business days, no fee for the records can be charged. Records must be provided in electronic form when available and printing costs are capped at 5 cents per page. State agencies must provide the first four hours of staff time at no cost. Municipalities with a population of at least 20,000 must provide the first two hours free.

Records Access Officer | All agencies and municipalities will be required to designate a staff member as their Records Access Officer, a position responsible for assisting requestors with record requests and ensuring compliance with the new law.

“The new law is a credit to our alliance members, concerned citizens throughout the state and the journalists who struggle daily to obtain basic government information,” Silverman said. “Thanks to their persistence and the leadership of our legislature we now have a stronger public records statute.”

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NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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