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Suffolk Closeup: Protecting the free press

“I love the Press Club of Long Island,” said Brian Stelter. “I love journalism organizations. We need more of them. We need them to be healthy and vibrant.”

He was speaking at the start of  “A Chat with

” aired recently online — and open to the public—by the Press Club of Long Island. (It can be viewed by going to the club’s website at pcli.org and clicking on the NEWS button.) Stelter is the former anchor of “Reliable Sources” on CNN, and author of the books “Top of the Morning,” “Hoax,” and, last year, “Network of Lies.”

This has been a challenging time for media, under fire by those who would dis-inform the public.

The Press Club of Long Island, which is having its 50th, its golden anniversary this year, is dedicated to the free and accurate flow of information. Democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. Historically, and now, there have been obstacles.

Consider the club’s extensive investigation on how New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) is implemented — or isn’t — by governments on Long Island. The 16-month project was conducted by Tim Bolger, chair of the club’s Freedom of Information Committee. The cumulative grade Long Island localities received was a “C.”

Bolger is Editor in Chief of the Long Island Press and also Dan’s Papers.

As Chris Vaccaro, then president of the

said: “Freedom of information laws exist for a reason, and the results of the audit are pretty eye-opening. It’s our hope that the audit will eventually help improve transparency by local governments and agencies that received low grades. We also commend the governments and agencies that scored high marks.”

As Bolger noted: “In our report card, agencies were graded on whether they responded to records requests within legal deadlines, if they provided documents that FOIL requires them to maintain, if they denied requests in writing, if they identified their FOIL denial appeals officer, if we had to appeal an improper denial and if they emailed the documents when requested, all of which is required by law.”

Scoring A-plus included the clerk of the Suffolk County Legislature, the Suffolk County clerk and the town governments of Riverhead, Southold, Southampton and Huntington. Dering Harbor received an A-minus and Shelter Island received a C-minus.

As Bolger reported, some 64% “failed to respond to our requests by the legally required deadlines;” 46% “failed to provide a list of required documents to maintain;” and 17% “scored failing grades.”

The results of the investigation in 2016 and 2017 were widely reported.

Or consider the swift and strong action of the Press Club of Long Island when Pat Biancaniello, editor of Smithtown Matters, and David Ambro, managing editor of the Smithtown News, were kicked out of a rally for then U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin featuring an extreme conservative speaker, Sebastian Gorka. This happened although they were invited by the Zeldin campaign organization to attend.

“The press serves an important role to keep Americans informed of facts that allow us to inform our own independent judgment on matters before our community, nation and world,” declared the Press Club of Long Island.

There was an apology from Zeldin, who was not at the rally.

There’s much to be done in a never-ending free press struggle, on Long Island, in the United States, and the world. Ever since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press nearly 600 years ago, there have been many in power threatened by people being able to communicate freely, and they have worked hard to prevent that.

What caused me in 1974 to organize what became the Press Club of Long Island and become its first president, was reading about a reporter being jailed for not revealing the identity of a source. In the ensuing years, which included action by journalism organizations, nearly all states have enacted “shield” laws to protect journalists from having to divulge sources. But the laws vary significantly.

And there was this headline in The Washington Post last month: “A CBS reporter refusing to reveal her sources could be held in contempt.” The investigative journalist is Catherine Herridge and her stories involved her looking into a questionable U.S. government probe of a scientist.

There’s no federal “shield” law.

Meanwhile, there are no legal restrictions preventing the U.S. government from obtaining a reporter’s records from phone companies and email providers in order to identify sources. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress — the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, the PRESS Act — to stop this. The bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously, but there’s been no Senate vote.

Says the bill’s Republican sponsor in the House, Republican Kevin Kiley of California: “As acknowledged by America’s founders, the freedom of the press to report on and disseminate information is critical to our republic.”

Its Democratic House sponsor, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, says: “Our Constitution provides that no law shall abridge the freedom of the press and inspires us to protect journalists against government overreach and abuse.” Suffolk Closeup: Protecting the free press