First Amendment experts at Northeastern and Boston law firm unseal records for newspaper

A seven-month collaboration among First Amendment advocates at Northeastern and a Boston law firm culminated successfully in April, with a judge’s ruling unsealing public records that were originally denied to a local newspaper.

Distinguished professor of journalism and director of the new Northeastern-based New England First Amendment Center, Walter V. Robinson collaborated with Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen LLP. Two Northeastern law students, including the past president of the law school’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter assisted — doing heavy research on court opinions and the law.

Bingham McCutchen, working pro bono, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) after two municipal retirement boards refused to give the newspaper access to the names of physicians listed for nearly 40 public employees receiving tax-free, disability-based pensions. The Ledger had requested this information as part of a series examining abuse in disability awards to firefighters and police.

In April, superior court judge Janet L. Sanders ruled that the documents were not exempt from public records law. The Quincy and Plymouth retirement boards subsequently released the records to the newspaper.

Robinson, best known for his leadership of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation and coverage of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, said the seven months of work comes at an especially critical time in the newspaper business.

Citing the uncertain fate of the newspaper industry as a whole, and the lack of legal muscle of small- to midsized newspapers, Robinson said the Northeastern center is planning to aggressively assist news organizations seeking to bring public information to light.

“There are a lot of public records in Massachusetts that you have to fight for,” Robinson said. “In most other states, that same information is a mouse-click away.”

The project was an opportunity for two students of Northeastern School of Law, James Bair (now graduated) and Laureli Mallek, both of whom are drawn to First Amendment issues. At the time, Bair was president of the law school’s chapter of the ACLU, and sought out Robinson, offering to assist on the case.

Their participation was exciting, hands-on experience, says Bair. “Even if the laws are good,” he explains, “the trouble so many publications have is the ability to assert their rights.” Newly graduated, Bair plans to continue working in the First Amendment realm.

“This work was significant for me,” adds Mallek, “because I had the chance to work on a project that benefited a client in a very tangible way,” she says. “The fact that our work … helped a newspaper gain access to information they might otherwise not have had access to was immensely satisfying.”

“It was a godsend for me,” says news editor Elizabeth Crowley, the Ledger reporter who worked on the series. “I was the reporter on that story. It hit a roadblock, and I happened to know of the existence of the center, and figured I’d give it try.” The series ran June 18–20, 2009.

“All newspapers are hurting financially,” Crowley adds, “and to be able to get that help was great.”
The New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative editor Walter V. Robinson, is a collaboration between the university’s School of Journalism and the New England First Amendment Coalition. The coalition was founded in 2006 by news editors concerned with repeated denial of access to public documents, meetings, and hearings.