BOSTON — The Sun Journal was awarded the Michael Donoghue First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition on Friday.
The award was given to the Lewiston newspaper during the annual New England Newspaper and Press Association convention.
The freedom of information award is given each year to a New England journalist or team of journalists for a body of work that protects or advances the public’s right to access information possessed by federal and state governments.
The Sun Journal was honored for uncovering an unpublicized shift in Maine Judicial Branch policy that sealed the records of dismissed criminal cases, in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. According to NEFAC, “led by Executive Editor Judith Meyer, the Sun Journal fought against the policy and formed a coalition of freedom of information advocates to help force an end to the practice.”
The newspaper discovered the shift in policy in April 2016 after a reporter was denied access to the case file of Steven Thomas, a New Jersey man who had been charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault in a motorcycle accident in 2014 in Oxford County.
In a routine check on the case, the reporter was told the file didn’t exist. However, the Sun Journal had been reporting on the case — including the indictment against Thomas, his initial appearance and a plea hearing, among others — for nearly two years and had access to the file during that time.
The Sun Journal challenged the denial, and was told the Judicial Branch implemented a change in public access after an internal reinterpretation of the Criminal History Records Information Act.
According to Meyer, there was no public notice of that change.
The reality of the change, Meyer explained to NEFAC, was that a person’s arrest record — which prospective employers and others could readily find — would remain forever public, but the ultimate dismissal of that case would become secret. In some cases, even defendants were not able to access their own criminal case files once the cases were dismissed.
The Sun Journal challenged the courts on multiple points, saying the change prevented the public from ever knowing whether criminal cases were dismissed for proper cause and blocked defendants from being able to prove to potential employers and others that their criminal cases were dismissed.
“How is the media to be fair to people we report have been arrested if we then can’t report that their cases were ultimately dismissed?” Meyer asked the court.
The newspaper also asserted its First Amendment right of access to records of criminal proceedings. According to a First Circuit Court ruling, “the basis for this right is that without access to documents the public often would not have a ‘full understanding’ of the proceeding and therefore would not always be in a position to serve as an effective check on the system.”
Asked for an explanation about what prompted the change, Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Judicial Branch, said the courts “have made a conscious decision to mirror the Criminal History Records Information Act. We do not want a situation where the courts are releasing information to the public that the legislature, through enacted law, has deemed confidential and that is not available through SBI,” which is Maine’s electronic database of criminal records.
One of the Sun Journal’s arguments was that CHRIA does not apply to criminal case files once charges are filed, regardless of the outcome of the case, so the courts are free to maintain public access.
After presenting that argument and various others to the court with no effect, the Sun Journal reached out to attorney Sigmund Schutz at Preti Flaherty, who serves as clerk of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. According to Meyer, Schutz suggested that he and the Sun Journal work together to gather a group of interested parties to formally challenge the court, which they did.
That task force included the Maine FOI Coalition, the National FOI Coalition, the Maine Press Association, NEFAC, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, The Associated Press, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, ACLU of Maine, the Society of Professional Journalists, Hearst, Maine Broadcasters Association, the Sun Journal, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.
The group sent a demand letter to the Judicial Branch claiming the court’s blanket seal on case files violated the First Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Court of Appeals, was not mandated by any Maine statute, violated Judicial Branch administrative policy, and was contrary to Maine’s long-standing common law tradition of public access to criminal case records.
“We were essentially,” Meyer said, “telling the entire Judicial Branch it was violating the law.”
Following weeks of pressure from the group, the court reversed its policy and changed “the designation of dismissed cases back to public,” according to a written statement from Lynch.
In announcing the award, Justin Silverman, executive director for NEFAC, said, “We received many outstanding submissions this year and the Sun Journal’s work on behalf of the public’s right to know stood above all others.”
In accepting the award, Meyer praised the Sun Journal staff for its tenacity in guarding public access. “We have an absolute obligation to hold government accountable, which is what we did here.”
Previous recipients of the FOI award include: Jenifer McKim, reporter for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting; James W. Foley (posthumously), seasoned war correspondent and New Hampshire native; Brent Curtis, a reporter for the Rutland (Vt.) Herald; and Don Stacom of the Hartford Courant.
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. It is a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society, including lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.