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Sen. Leahy honored; recalls his Waterbury roots

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Sen. Patrick Leahy

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., received the First Amendment Award on Friday from the New England First Amendment Coalition.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., received the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award last Friday from the New England First Amendment Coalition. Leahy has been a powerhouse in promoting and defending the federal Freedom of Information Act. Here are excerpts from Leahy’s remarks, starting with praise for Mike Donoghue, who retired recently from the Burlington Free Press.

Thank you, Mike, for that gracious introduction. And you know, it’s just so fitting that the Freedom of Information award now will carry your name. You are absolutely fearless, relentless — and merciless, and I mean that in a good way, Mike — in digging for information. Your dad was one of my professors at St. Michael’s College. I remember his insistence on thoroughness and accuracy. He would be proud of his son who embraced and built on those values. …

As the son of Vermont printers, I feel like I am among family. I learned from a young age the importance of the freedom of speech. To me, the First Amendment is our most sacred. It is the foundation of our democracy and our way of life.

By guaranteeing a free press, the First Amendment makes possible an informed electorate — which New Englanders know a thing or two about.

New England has made an indelible mark on the history of courageous American journalism. Elijah Lovejoy, who refused to stop publishing abolitionist material in his newspaper, paid with his life and was our nation’s first martyr to press freedom.

We also follow in the footsteps of such greats as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator. And such workhorses as Steven Hamblett, for whom this honor is named. I think of the late, great Tony Lewis. I think of one of my favorite cartoonists, the incomparable Jeff Danziger. I think of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer David Moats of Vermont’s Rutland Daily Herald. He and the Herald courageously illuminated Vermont’s debate over civil unions.

When I think of the First Amendment’s importance, I also think about freedom of religion. My mother’s parents immigrated to Vermont from Italy in the last part of the 19th century. Vermont was a different place back then. My grandparents were often met with suspicion because they were seen as “papists” and they spoke a “strange” language — even though my grandfather spoke many languages.

Catholics were not looked upon favorably and there was no Catholic church in my grandparents’ town. So every few weeks, on a Sunday, a Catholic priest from another town would come to my grandparents’ home. They would pull the blinds and all of the Italians in the area would come to hear mass.

My father’s parents came to Vermont from Ireland. When my grandfather, Patrick J. Leahy, died in the early part of the 20th century, my father was just a teenager. He had to leave school and seek work in Montpelier to support his mother and younger sister. Many businesses had signs that said “No Irish Need Apply,” or more directly, “No Catholic Need Apply.”

My father persevered, and eventually he and my mother began a weekly newspaper — the Waterbury Record. On St. Patrick’s Day, they would print the paper in green ink.

My parents then ran a small printing business, the Leahy Press, which still exists.

In our family, the First Amendment was an article of faith. We were taught that people have a right to practice any religion they want — or none if they want. And we were taught that in the United States, everyone is guaranteed the right to speak, whether your speech is popular or not.

The Leahys believed — and this Leahy believes — that if you guarantee the freedoms of religion and speech, you guarantee diversity. And if you guarantee diversity, you 
protect democracy.

As journalists, you live out that commitment every day. Like legislating, it is not always easy work. But the determination of a grizzled news team can have a tremendous impact.

It was the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that uncovered years of abuse that took place in the Boston Archdiocese. That reporting rocked the world and led to revelations of sexual abuse in dioceses across the country — including in Vermont.

The significance of the Globe’s coverage cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of a free and open press.

But at times of great fear and stress in our nation’s history, some have strayed from this core value.

We must remember what happens when leaders succumb to the politics of fear and lose sight of our fundamental American values. Joseph McCarthy did just that when he leveled an attack on anyone who challenged him, including journalists. J. Edgar Hoover did the same when he targeted Martin Luther King and those he suspected might be gay.

We are a long way from the days of McCarthy and Hoover, yet today there are some who

are again stoking fear for

political gain. Those who challenge these fear tactics will be attacked, including journalists. But we have an obligation to stand up for American values in these moments.

That is why after a leading presidential candidate declared that we should ban all Muslims from entering this country, I offered an amendment in the Judiciary Committee, plainly stating that America does not bar individuals based on their religion.

This simple, straightforward amendment — which most members of the committee supported — underscored the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Freedom of the press is also critical to fighting against human rights abuses abroad. Without a free press, corruption and erosion of the rule of law lack public accountability. …

The Committee to Protect Journalists documents that 199 journalists were jailed last year. China and Egypt were the worst offenders.

In the past decade, 700 journalists have been killed for trying to bring information to the public, an average of one death each week. In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished. …

We live in times that test government of, by, and for the people. Dark money floods our political process. Cynical efforts to squeeze access to the right to vote dampen public participation. And the crucial third leg, government accountability, requires unending struggle to defend the public’s right to know. Sunshine, not secrecy, should be the default setting. …

This son of Vermont printers stands with all of you here today in support of our Constitution, and of a free press and free expression.

I am grateful to have partners in the New England First Amendment Coalition who I know will keep fighting for our First Amendment rights. I applaud you for your work, and I thank you.

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