NATICK, Mass. — The New England Newspaper & Press Association named the Sun Journal Sunday’s paper the Newspaper of the Year in its circulation category Thursday during the association’s annual conference.
The newspaper was also named a distinguished newspaper in the daily category, and was awarded a Publick Occurrences Award for Outstanding Journalism for its report titled “Benefit bartering,” about trading EBT cards for drugs.
The Sun Journal was also awarded the Morley L. Piper First Amendment Award for its work forcing Maine’s courts to reverse an unconstitutional practice to automatically seal dismissed case files.
The Piper award honors a single newspaper in New England for leadership and exceptional work on First Amendment issues. The Lewiston paper, along with Portland attorney Sigmund Schutz, challenged the state’s Judicial Branch on a new practice automatically sealing dismissed cases after 30 days.
The challenge was prompted by the Sun Journal’s discovery in April that a manslaughter file had been sealed in Oxford County Superior Court without notice, even though the early proceedings in the case were heard in open court. The court clerk declined to even acknowledge a file existed, and the Sun Journal raised an objection with the Judicial Branch.
“The newspaper’s argument was that it was inherently unfair to defendants whose arrests were public records, and would always remain public records, who had lost the ability to declare to the world that they had been cleared of all charges,” according to Executive Editor Judith Meyer. That sealing the files created secret criminal cases, even when proceedings were held in open court.
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.
After the Sun Journal and Schutz raised their initial objections, others joined in, 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.
Within weeks, the court agreed with the media’s position and reversed the practice.
“It was a huge win for public access and the First Amendment,” Meyer said, reopening what had become secret court records in Maine.
The Publick Occurrences Award, named after the first newspaper in America that published a single issue in 1690 before the royal governor suppressed the effort, recognized the Sun Journal’s work reporting on the lack of oversight at the Department of Health and Human Services to track EBT cards.
According to the Sun Journal’s report, in Lewiston between May 2014 and April 2015, 40 EBT cards were seized during 25 separate drug enforcement operations. Among the cards, six — collectively — had been reported lost or stolen by their owners 114 times and automatically recharged and reissued.
Based on that report, DHHS adjusted its rules.
“Now, instead of repeatedly, endlessly and automatically reissuing cards, DHHS will only issue four replacements,” Meyer explained. The fifth time, cardholders have to explain how the card was lost or stolen before it will be reissued.
This shift in DHHS oversight has the potential to save taxpayers a lot of money, Meyer said, and makes it much harder for cardholders to commit fraud.
The Newspaper of the Year award recognized the newspaper’s Sunday editions of March 13 and March 27; a story about the suspicious death of former Elan student Philip Williams Jr. in 1982 and a feature on Maine relaxing rules on what’s OK to put on vanity plates, respectively. The newspapers also featured stories on St. Louis Church and a look at local people who “pulled the plug” on cable.
The Distinguished Newspaper award recognized the daily paper for its March 23 and Nov. 20, 2015 editions, including a report on Gov. Paul LePage’s town hall in Rumford and coverage of the Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald debate with challenger Ben Chin, respectively.
“These awards honor an exceptionally hardworking and dedicated staff at our newspaper,” Meyer said, “and we’re very proud our industry recognized our work to hold government accountable and fight for public access.”