Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack, Hyde Square Task Force Also Honored During Coalition’s Annual New England First Amendment Awards
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Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker, accepted the New England First Amendment Coalition‘s Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award on Feb. 23, emphasizing the need to defend journalists from efforts to discredit them and their work.
“When President Trump attacks the press these days as the enemies of the American people, those of us who are old enough to have lived through Watergate know that we have seen this play before. As the stain of Watergate spread, President Nixon tried to stigmatize the press and destroy its legitimacy,” Mayer said.
But she added that “this strategy didn’t work for Nixon and it will not work for President Trump. We are still a nation of laws with a powerful and independent press that still makes our democracy the envy of the world.”
Mayer spoke during the eighth annual New England First Amendment Awards ceremony in Boston. NEFAC hosts the awards luncheon to honor those who have advocated for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. The event – which occurs each year during the New England Newspaper & Press Association‘s winter conference – also honored Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe and the Hyde Square Task Force in Boston. The luncheon was emceed by Ed Harding of WCVB-Boston.
Sponsors, table hosts and other supporters of the luncheon included WBUR, WCVB, The Boston Globe, Boston University, Boston 25 News, Northeastern University, University of New Hampshire, Roger Williams University, Prince Lobel Tye LLP, Saint Michael’s College, University of Rhode Island, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Central Connecticut State University and Emerson College.
During her speech, Mayer cautioned that the road ahead will be “bumpy,” saying that “in his war against the press and the First Amendment, Trump does have considerable weapons on his side.”
These weapons include a general distrust in news organizations, and social media which makes it more difficult for readers to distinguish fact from fiction – a new mediascape, Mayer said, that is “completely vulnerable even to laughable lies”
Mayer described her own experience battling a smear campaign by supporters of the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, a campaign that ultimately failed because Mayer’s colleagues aggressively defended her and her work.
“When honest, evidence-based truth or those who tell it are attacked, I hope all of you too will jump into the fray, speak up, defend the First Amendment, have each other’s backs,” Mayer said. “Because whether we are at a tiny weekly newspaper in Vermont, or the largest media conglomerate in the world, this is actually all of our fight.”
‘So Few Records’
Wallack was honored with the Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award for his body of work from last year that included stories about online accessibility to criminal records, transparency within the MBTA and the overuse of certain public record law exemptions to keep information secret.
After accepting the award, Wallack spoke about the need to further reform the Massachusetts public records law. Despite a recent overhaul of the law earlier this year, Wallack said it still “remains one of the weakest in the country in many ways.”
“That’s mainly because the law covers so few records,” he said. “Large parts of the government aren’t covered at all. And even when they are covered, they can cite countless exemptions to withhold records. The new law didn’t address exemptions, it even added a new exemption for cybersecurity.”
Just how bad is the Massachusetts public records law?
“You’ve probably heard that we are the only state in the country where the legislature, the judiciary and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt,” Wallack explained. “We’re also the only state in the U.S. where police can arrest an adult for a serious crime like rape, lock him in a holding cell, and keep it completely secret.”
Wallack suggested that journalists report more stories about how citizens are struggling to get information about their government. He also recommended taking advantage of the attorney’s fee provision in the current law and eliminating many exemptions.
“Until we deal with all these exemptions,” Wallack said, “we’re going to have a law that is really weak because it doesn’t cover anything.”
‘Step Up and Continue to Fight’
Receiving a standing ovation, two teenage volunteers at the Hyde Square Task Force accepted the Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award, describing their efforts to raise funding for a neighborhood recreation center and ice skating rink.
Through public record requests, the teens discovered that the state mandate had been ignored for more than 20 years. The city, they determined, was owed $14 million, enough money to cover the cost of building a new rec center and rink.
“We read the law over and over again and realized that the law had been broken. But we wanted to double check so we sent letters to TD Garden and the state. For weeks they ignored us,” said Mabel Gondres, a senior at Boston Latin School and a volunteer for the Hyde Square Task Force.
It was only after submitting public records requests, Gondres explained, that they found out TD Garden had failed to hold any fundraisers or raise any money as promised.
“What if I didn’t pay our state taxes for more than 24 years? Then we would definitely be facing some sort of punishment,” said Gondres, adding that “I learned that people like us need to step up and continue to fight for our cause and continue to make noise for justice.”
Shayne Clinton, also a senior at Boston Latin School and a volunteer for Hyde Square Task Force, assured those in the audience that their efforts will continue. He and other volunteers are filing more public records requests to learn about other tax breaks received by the Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the TD Garden.
“If we do our research and keep to the facts,” Clinton said, “we can expose even some of the most powerful people in the country.”
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. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.