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He championed the 1st Amendment

By Staff | Oct 8, 2012

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has lost one of its staunchest supporters.

And, many of us in the newspaper community have lost a good friend.

John Finnegan, a former editor of the St. Paul Press, died last week Tuesday at the age of 87.

Finnegan was known across the country as an advocate for the public’s right to know what their elected officials are up to.

He not only believed in Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law, he helped draft the first version of the legislation back in 1957, which stated that public meetings would be open to the public, and closed only for very specific and limited reasons.

He not only firmly believed that the voting public had a right to public records, he co-wrote Minnesota’s Data Practices Act in 1974.

That legislation opened most of Minnesota’s records to the public and the press.

He was a believer that the First Amendment spelled out that there should not be secrecy in government, and that it was the duty of the press to bring that information to the voters.

He worked tirelessly throughout his career to protect the public’s right to know and a newspaper’s right to government information. In fact, after he retired, he continued to work hard lobbying for full public access to meetings and records.

He won so many awards for his work that his son says they were everywhere in the house. Not only did he win a boat load of awards, he had one named after him the Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, given by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.

It was my privilege to get to know John Finnegan through our common work with the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Both of us served on the MNA board of directors and both of us were elected president of the association John in 1990, me in 1998.

In fact, it was John who called me one day in 1990 and asked me if I would serve on the newspaper association board.

I told him I felt it would be an honor. And that it was also an honor that it was he who asked me.

I learned a lot from John about the way newspaper’s should be run, the way newspapers should fight for the public’s right to information about their government bodies.

It is a little ironic that his death came the same week that we here at the Faribault County Register are enmeshed in a ‘battle’ for just such information. And, face a threat of losing access to what is currently an open meeting.

The one item is our request for information from the Blue Earth Area School District concerning the name and current status of a school bus driver involved in an incident.

The other is the fact the United Hospital District is studying changing their governance structure from its current elected board of directors to something else. That something else may close their meetings to the public, allowing them to operate without public scrutiny.

In the case of the school bus driver incident, the school officials say their attorney advises them not to release any information until after all the investigation is completed.

Our attorney says that the Data Practices Act (which John Finnegan helped write) specifically spells out that this information is to be released immediately.

In fact, it says that nearly every piece of information about a public employee is open to the public name, date they were hired, time cards, salary, etc. And, it states, any complaints and disciplinary action taken against the employee is open.

This is the second time in the past couple of years that the school district has refused to name the person under investigation.

Our newspaper association attorney says they are in violation of these state laws by not releasing the information.

Whenever I deal with these public data and open meeting issues, I hear John Finnegan’s voice in my head, saying, “Go get them, Chuck. You have a right to get this information, and a responsibility to inform your readers what their elected officials are doing.”

No one had more passion for open government than John Finnegan. And for the words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the fee exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”