Sun Journal newspaper receives the Morley L. Piper First Amendment Award

Sun Journal
October 6, 2016

The Sun Journal was awarded the Morley L. Piper First Amendment Award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association, which honors a single newspaper in New England for its leadership and exceptional work on First Amendment issues. The Sun Journal, based in Lewiston, Maine, received this recognition due to its work to convince Maine state courts to reverse a practice of automatically sealing dismissed case files.

The paper, working with Preti Flaherty attorney Sigmund Schutz, challenged the state’s Judicial Branch when the court began a new practice of automatically sealing dismissed cases after 30 days. The Sun Journal learned of this practice when the paper tried to obtain a manslaughter file. The file had been sealed in Oxford County Superior Court without notice, despite the fact that proceedings in the case were heard in open court. In addition, the paper noted that the court clerk declined to acknowledge the file's existence.

At this point, the Sun Journal raised an objection with the Judicial Branch, and other organizations, including the Maine Press Association, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the ACLU of Maine, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition joined in raising objections to the court. Following this challenge, the court agreed with the paper's position and reversed its practice.

An Excerpt

Schutz, with the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, argued that the automatic seal was unconstitutional because the press and the public have an absolute First Amendment right to access criminal proceedings and records, with plenty of case law backing him up....

“It was a huge win for public access and the First Amendment,” [Executive Editor Judith] Meyer said, reopening what had become secret court records in Maine.

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