Recognizing a champion of open government, First Amendment

Recognizing a champion of open government, First Amendment

Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:

Glamorous work it’s not.

The work that she has done for decades has placed her at odds with some of the state’s most powerful public officials.

The work has placed her on hard wooden benches in State House hearing rooms, waiting for hours to deliver testimony to leery legislators.

And the work has often placed her between two ferns on public-access cable shows, urging viewers to defend the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

But while it has never brought widespread glamour and fame, the role that Linda Lotridge Levin has played in Rhode Island over the years has been vital.

She is a cofounder and current president of ACCESS/RI, a nonprofit coalition dedicated to improving citizen access to the records and processes of government in Rhode Island. She is a former president and current secretary of the Rhode Island Press Association, a former Providence Journal reporter and editor, and a former chair of the University of Rhode Island journalism department.

She is the person that I called, year after year, when writing about public records, public meetings and a free press. I’ve quoted her about an audit of open-government practices, the need for public access to an economic development summit, the call for a federal media shield law.

She is, in short, one of the unsung heroes in the battle to beat back secrecy and allow sunshine to disinfect government in Rhode Island.

And that is why she will receive the Excellence in Public Service Award from Common Cause Rhode Island at the watchdog group’s annual meeting on Oct. 16 at The Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel.

“The fight for open government is a battle that is never won,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “You have to be vigilant, always pushing forward in order to make sure things don’t go backward. Linda, in her various roles as a journalism professor, leader of the Press Association, leader of the open government coalition, is one of the people always pushing forward. Whether it’s showing up on Tuesday night and waiting until all hours to testify on bill at the General Assembly, or editing the latest public records audit, she does work out of the spotlight on behalf of the public interest.”

Common Cause presents the award to public employees, journalists, community leaders and others whose integrity, courage or leadership in pursuit of open and accountable government exemplify the group’s objectives.

In typical fashion, Levin contends that the award shouldn’t be going to her at all – that it should go to ACCESS/RI as a group. “We all have worked so hard,” she said.

She recalled that the ACCESS/RI coalition formed in the 1990s when the Press Association was “spending a lot of time worrying about access to public records, particularly police records.” She said she and former Providence Journal editor Thomas E. Heslin asked former Common Cause director H. Philip West Jr. to speak to the group about what could be done. They realized that they had to get other groups and legislators involved in the fight for open government, and they needed to bring these issues out into the public eye.

Today, the ACCESS/RI coalition includes groups such as the ACLU, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the Rhode Island Press Association.

“I think ACCESS/RI has had some impact,” Levin said. “We’ve made people more aware of the need for transparency in government activities. We’ve had amendments to the Access to Public Records Act, and in the next legislative session we’re hoping to get some changes to the Open Meetings Act. We need to bring it into the 21st Century.”

She said she thinks of ACCESS/RI as a citizens group because access to public records and open government aren’t just the concerns of journalists – they’re crucial for all citizens.

Heslin once noted that public officials often treat questions about access to public records and information as if those things only matter to the news media. But, he said, “to dismiss the issue of access as the narrow concern of reporters is, to me, akin to dismissing airline safety as the narrow concern of pilots. I assure you, we are all passengers on this democracy.”

Before buckling up for the bumpy ride ahead, let’s pause to give thanks for the often-thankless work that Levin has done to ensure open government in Rhode Island.