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.