The public’s threatened ally

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By Doug Clifton

If you have some time to kill, wander through the First Amendment and public records case law for your state. You may be surprised to see that most of the citations say something like this: Boston Globe v….., Providence Journal v….. Burlington Free Press v……

It’s really no surprise at all when you think about it because oversight of government activity is the traditional role of the press in America and the press has vigorously protected the right to practice that role. And inquisitive, civically active citizens have been the beneficiaries.

For more than 200 years the public could rely on the press to act as a surrogate citiizen, to attend government meetings, ask for public records, fight for open government, in short, to do all the things the busy citizen couldn’t do – or couldn’t afford to do.

Now, try this. Go to your favorite search engine and type in “distressed newspapers.” You may be surprised to see that so many newspapers accross the country are feeling economic pressure the likes of which they have never felt before. The result has been a severe diminution in the size of newspaper staffs and, inevitably, a reduction in the scope of coverage. It’s early in the game but my fear is that in the long run what you find in search number one (the law books) will be fewer cases and fewer of those pressed by the news media.

Yes, the press will continue to fight for access and to keep the work of government open and transparent. But there won’t be as many troops in the trenches and the eagerness to send a team of lawyers to court might not be as strong.

So public spirited citizens and organizations such as the New England First Amendment Coalition and Northeastern’s First Amendment Center will have to take up the cudgel. The free ride may be coming to an end and that can’t be good news – for anyone.

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