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New England First Amendment Coalition honors Anthony Lewis with the inaugural Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award

Anthony Lewis, left, accepts the inaugural Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award at the Boston Park Plaza on Feb. 11, 2011 with from left, Hamblett's son, Adam, widow Jocelin and son Christopher “Topher” Hamblett. Photo by The Providence Journal / John Freidah

By Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director, New England First Amendment Coalition

February 11 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, amidst the hubbub of the New England Newspaper and Press Association conference, a group of 220 interested journalists, judges, attorneys, academics, law and journalism students, family and friends gathered to honor Anthony Lewis with the first ever Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award and listen to a compelling keynote address by Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Associated Press.  The table was set for an afternoon full of enlightened discussion and poignant moments.  It was particularly meaningful to a few of the groups represented:  it was a wonderful tribute to Anthony Lewis after a lifetime of dedication and principled leadership on the cause of protecting our First Amendment freedoms, so meaningful to his family and friends gathered there to support him; the beginning of a significant legacy for the patriarch of the Hamblett family, Stephen Hamblett’s widow, Jocelin, and two of his sons, Adam and Christopher (“Topher”) Hamblett were there to grant the first ever Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award; and the coming out party of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), a non-profit organization that has moved from inception in 2006 to a more robust existence in 2011.

Thomas Heslin, President of NEFAC, Executive Editor of The Providence Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner, provided some background on NEFAC in the introduction, “our journey dates to 2005, and our shared concerns about the fortunes of the press in New England, and for its future ability and commitment to preserve its role as the watchdog of local and state government, and to bear the legal costs of the fights that must be fought… [W]e have set out to educate, agitate and litigate on behalf of the First Amendment, and especially freedom of information and the right to know in the region. We value free speech, of course, but we also value informed speech. Access to the records and processes of government is essential to accurate journalism – as it is for effective citizenry.  As journalists, when we settle for less, we are settling for journalism that is perhaps only half-true, and at worst, wrong.  As citizens, when we settle for less, we allow ourselves to be guided by myth, bias or illusion – or to be victimized by malfeasance.”

In effort to address these concerns, NEFAC has begun creating law school chapter organizations this year that will provide free legal resources to media outlets on access issues.  It has also conducted and is planning more large regional trainings for reporters and editors on public access and freedom of information laws and will be available for smaller on-site legal trainings at member media outlets.  In attendance at the event was Chau Trinh, the President of NEFAC’s first law school chapter at Suffolk Law School, and several of the members of that group.

Walter Robinson, NEFAC Board Member and Pulitzer Prize winning editor and reporter, formerly with The Boston Globe, now professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, introduced Anthony Lewis, longtime New York Times columnist and Columbia journalism professor, with the words: “newspaper journalism is not always a comfortable fit for original thinkers, though it surely has been for Tony.  Among that small cohort, over decades, Tony has been a giant.  If we are the army at dawn, Tony Lewis has been the clear-eyed sentinel, always out ahead of the column, warning us for the forces that imperil our freedoms.”  Robinson further praised Lewis for “elevat[ing] and enlighten[ing] the national discourse on race and civil rights, on civil liberties, on human rights and the law… [and for] focus[ing] an unblinking spotlight on government secrecy.”  In summary, he stated that “there are so few people in public life, in public office or in journalism, who are placed on pedestals early in their careers, and deserve to be there.  Tony Lewis is among them. Fewer still, given the choice, would have declined the elevation.  Tony is among them.  And so few have managed to remain so elevated for a lifetime. And Tony Lewis is one of those few and with good reason.”

After the introduction, the family of the late Stephen Hamblett came forward to present the award to Anthony Lewis.  Hamblett, the former publisher of The Providence Journal from 1987 to 1999 for whom the award was named, was lauded in the event program for, “[running] the Providence Journal during an era of hectic change in the media business..[doing] so with vision, compassion, decisiveness, ingenuity, and calm, leading the firm around numerous economic shoals as it became a truly national media company, all the while maintaining the Journal’s longstanding commitment to high quality journalism and community improvement” (quoting Howard G. Sutton current Publisher of The Providence Journal).

The keynote remarks were delivered by Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Associated Press, who was praised by Heslin in his introduction for “’car[ing] deeply’” about  reporters on the frontline and keeping close watch of all situations around the globe, as well as for being a staunch supporter of First Amendment causes “’instilling’” in those that work for her that they must “’be right and pursue the truth, sometimes at great sacrifice.’”

Carroll began her remarks commenting on the recent elections across the country and the foreswearing that has gone on by new Governors regarding the importance of transparency, asking the crowd to give a cheer for the governments for taking such laudable steps.  “I can see by your seated silence that you agree all that foreswearing hasn’t changed much down in the trenches, where reporters meet the local officials who actually have their hands on the data.  And where the default answer to questions about government activity is: “None of your… business,” Carroll began.  “That’s because having a law on the books is no guarantee of access.  Many states have open records laws. They also have enough exemptions and exceptions to render the laws moot. Across the country, in capitals and city halls, citizens and news organizations are up against inertia and sometimes just plain old stubbornness,” Carroll explained.

Carroll related a tale from Pennsylvania, where the AP has been fighting with the state police since May to get records of state police moonlighting:  “We asked after moonlighting state police were connected to off-field carousing by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. State police said we couldn’t have the moonlighting data. The state Office of Open Records said that was wrong, that we could and should have it. We still don’t.  And that’s nine months after the first request.”

Another example was even more egregious:  “In Illinois, the Belleville News-Democrat has uncovered some jaw-dropping efforts to stay undercover. It started with a car crash in 2007 involving a state trooper. Authorities say he was driving 126 mph, talking on his cell phone and emailing when he caused the crash that killed two teenagers.  The trooper was injured, too, and is now seeking workers compensation. The arbitrator on that case wanted to keep the public hearing on his claim a secret because she apparently was unnerved by the prospect of big media attention to a high-profile case. The newspaper used the state’s Freedom of Information Act to dig out emails showing just how hard she was working to do so. ‘We are going to do it on the sly with no press…’ says one, ‘There is nothing I can do to keep them [reporters] out of a public hearing, but will be more than willing to do a special setting and an unknown place and time!’ she wrote to the trooper’s lawyer.  And that’s just what she did, moving the date and location without telling anyone.”

While there is always a cost to secrecy:  a less informed public poorer equipped to make decisions on important policy matters and leadership, Carroll included in her remarks the lesser known fiscal cost to our nation:  “Last year, the United States spent $9 billion… dollars keeping that kind of information secret. Well, it’s actually a lot more than $9 billion because that figure doesn’t include what the U.S. spends classifying material from intelligence-gatherings agencies like the CIA and the Defense Intelligence agency. The amounts they spend classifying documents is, naturally, classified.”

Finally, she tipped her hat to the important work of everyday journalists in the trenches and of organizations like NEFAC, stating that “the increasingly lonely task of ferreting out secrets continues to fall primarily to journalists and groups like many of the organizations represented here.  These fights aren’t new, but they are becoming more expensive and more protracted.  You’ve got to have the stomach for a fight every day and if you’re going to win you’ve got to know the law and all the possible loopholes, backdoors and escape hatches.”  We could not agree more.

NEFAC’s Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award luncheon was made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation and Bingham McCutchen LLP, as well as the support of Boston University College of Communication, Blish & Cavanagh LLP, GateHouse Media, Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, P.C., Northeastern University School of Journalism, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Telegraph.

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