MNPA Files Comments on Proposed Court Access Rules

The MNPA today filed comments on proposed rules that would govern public access to court records.

The proposed Trial Court Rule XIV, Uniform Rules on Public Access to Court Records, would control access both to physical records in a courthouse and electronic records available online.

The MNPA opposes parts of the proposed rule and supports other aspects of it. Our full comments to the committee considering the rule are posted below.

Alliance Urges Passage of Massachusetts Public Records Modernization Bill

BOSTON — United under the banner of the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance (MassFOIA), open-government groups today urge the state legislature to quickly pass recently filed legislation intending to modernize and rationalize the Massachusetts public records law. Their call to action coincides with a national celebration of open government known as Sunshine Week, from March 15-21.

swlogo2-300x176The state public records law is supposed to grant the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions, such as to protect personal privacy. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton) and Sen. Jason M. Lewis (D-Winchester) filed bills in both the House (HB 2772) and Senate (SD 1235) that aim to reform the public records law by eliminating technological and administrative barriers to its enforcement. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, require state agencies to have a “point person” to handle records requests, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.

“Our public records law is broken,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, a founding member of MassFOIA. “Journalists, concerned citizens and others with a need to know how our government is working often can’t get the information they have a right to, because of excessive fees, long delays, or obstruction of one kind or another. The public records law hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973–now it’s time to bring it into the 21st century.”

Other groups included in the alliance are:

According to MassFOIA, the proposed legislation aims to improve access to information that the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, which include exemptions for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records, trade secrets, and many other categories. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.

“Let’s take the opportunity this Sunshine Week to discuss the state’s public records law and make meaningful, yet common sense improvements,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “As winter-weary residents of Massachusetts, we’re all looking forward to more warmth and sunshine. When it comes to the public’s right to know, however, let’s make sure sunlight shines on our government all year round.”

“The outmoded public records law is repeatedly thwarting the news media in their efforts to cover state and local government activities,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “The public has a right to know what their government officials are doing, but outrageous fee demands and lack of accountability frequently obstruct that right.”

“The point is to fix the law so it works the way it’s supposed to,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Allowing courts to award attorneys’ fees is a common way to create an incentive for people to abide by the law and to provide a remedy when rights are violated. It’s shocking that 46 states have this kind of provision–as does the federal FOIA law–and Massachusetts doesn’t. As the cradle of liberty, Massachusetts should lead the way, not lag behind the rest of the country.”


Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel
American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
(617) 482-3170 x340;

Robert J. Ambrogi, Executive Director
Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association
(978) 546-3400;

Justin Silverman, Executive Director
New England First Amendment Coalition
(774) 244-2365;

Pam Wilmot, Executive Director
Common Cause Massachusetts
(617) 962-0034;

Trooper’s Arrest Underscores Problems with Domestic Violence Secrecy Law

On Aug. 8, Gov. Patrick signed into law a bill targeting domestic violence in Massachusetts. (Chapter 260 of the Acts of 2014). This comprehensive bill included troubling and confusing provisions that severely restricted the public’s right to know about crimes committed in their communities.

Now, a newspaper reporter’s almost-accidental discovery of the domestic violence arrest of a State Trooper underscores the confusion surrounding this law and the reason why it was bad policy to begin with.

The law closed to the public and the press police reports and police logs pertaining to domestic violence. That means that if a public official or trusted person is the subject of a domestic violence complaint, the public may never know.

Earlier this week, Cape Cod Times reporter Amy Anthony, while routinely reviewing arraignment records at Barnstable District Court, came across a police report that the police say should have been secret under this law.

The report detailed the arrest of a State Trooper on Sunday for charges related to domestic violence. As Anthony’s report describes, there is significant disagreement about whether the arrest should ever have been made public under this new law.

Virtually everyone she spoke to — Sandwich police, State Police, the district attorney, and a sponsor of the bill — had different understandings of the law.

The story illustrates why this aspect law was bad policy to begin with and why it should be repealed.

Read her story here: Massachusetts Domestic Violence Law Leading to Confusion.

Robert J. Ambrogi, Esq.
MNPA Executive Director

20 Mass. Newspapers Publish Joint Editorial Today Endorsing Stronger Public Records, Open Meetings Laws

Something extraordinary happened today on the editorial pages of Massachusetts daily newspapers. More than 20 of the state’s newspapers agreed to jointly run an editorial endorsing reforms to the public records and open meetings laws that would help bring about increased government transparency.

The editorials came about with the support (non-financial) of the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England Newspaper & Press Association, all of whom endorse these reforms.

Here are links to the editorials in the participating papers: