Local lawyer leads New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC)
By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Westborough – When Justin Silverman, now 36, was a senior at Syracuse University, he and some other students were arrested during a racous celebration of the school’s 2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Silverman was offered the same deal as the others: stay out of trouble for a year and pay for damages. He, however, wasn’t a reveler; he was a reporter.
Silverman, whose passion for reporting started in high school, said, “I was covering the post-game celebration for my newspaper (Hermes) when I was singled out by a police officer who asked me to leave an area where the press had gathered. I showed him my credentials but he insisted I leave. He arrested me when I refused.”
During his senior year, Silverman and a friend had launched Hermes, which became an award-winning newspaper that focused on the school’s fraternities and sororities. Before Hermes, he was a news editor at Syracuse’s paper, The Daily Orange.
Silverman’s case went to trial, and was won with the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“I had a reputation to uphold and cared about the principle,” he said.
After graduation, Silverman moved back to the Boston area and worked in media, marketing, and as a journalist for several newspapers.
In 2007, he changed course, and while working full-time, entered night school at Suffolk University School of Law.
“I thought with a law degree, I could help journalists with their own legal battles,” he said. “I didn’t realize while I was in Syracuse that my arrest as a reporter planted the seed for me to become a lawyer.”
During his third of the four-year part-time program at Suffolk, one of Silverman’s professors introduced him to the nonprofit, New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC). The professor had read a piece that Silverman wrote on media law and First Amendment issues.
Silverman joined the NEFAC board in 2010, and became its executive director in 2014.
“NEFAC is an advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. We seek to educate everyone — journalists and non-journalists alike — about their rights under the First Amendment. Much of our work is for the benefit of journalists because they are often the ones using freedom of information laws to obtain records and educate communities.
“But we provide resources to everyone,” he added. “We’re most concerned about threats to the press, free speech and the public’s right to know.”
NEFAC’s large board meets twice a year. Silverman says that they are in constant contact. They collaborate with other organizations, including the ACLU and Common Cause.
Every fall, the New England First Amendment Institute (NEFAI) is held, during which the latest investigative journalism techniques are presented to 25 invited journalists. The presenters include journalists, lawyers, media specialists, and academics.
An annual NEFAC awards luncheon takes place in February, during which the contributions of two journalists and a private citizen are recognized. This year’s recipients are Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post; The Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine); and Donna Green, a member of the Right to Know New Hampshire.
NEFAC also participates in the annual Sunshine Week, a national campaign to promote government transparency. For a week during March, NEFAC hosts a number of events to increase public awareness.
The NEFAC has expressed concern about many local issues, including regulating drones in New Hampshire, a possible ban on delivering free newspapers in Rhode Island, and the new Massachusetts Public Record Law.
About President Donald Trump, Silverman said, “Personally, I’m concerned that the contempt Trump has shown for the media will trickle down to the local level and make the job of investigative journalists more difficult.”
Silverman’s office is located in Westborough at Mark’s Moving Company, which is owned by his family. He lives in Wayland with his wife and two young children.
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