SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS’ NORCAL CHAPTER HONORS FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND FIRST AMENDMENT CHAMPIONS

Chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee to host 35th annual James Madison Awards Dinner Thursday evening, March 19, at Delancey Street Town Hall in San Francisco

For immediate release

Contact: SPJ NorCal FOI Committee at spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com 

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SAN FRANCISCO — The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards recognize Northern California individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and/or expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment. SPJ NorCal presents the awards near Madison’s birthday (March 16) and National Sunshine Week.

David Weir wins the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement award. For 50 years, Weir has been a force for public interest journalism. He inspired a culture of investigative reporting at Rolling Stone and in 1974 broke “The Inside Story of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping,” still considered one of the magazine’s biggest scoops. He co-founded the Emeryville-based Center for Investigative Reporting and launched a diversity-in-journalism fund at San Francisco State University, named for his old friend Raul Ramirez.

More recently, Weir has mentored and inspired the next generation of investigative reporters as KQED’s senior editor for digital news. At KQED, Weir pushed to sue public agencies who preferred to conduct the people’s business in the shadows, resulting in a successful lawsuit against the city of Hayward that exposed questionable contracts funneled to the former police chief’s husband. Weir is not a boisterous advocate, but rather a soft-spoken editor who leads by example and whose work has had an outsized impact on local journalism. His award is named in memory of Norwin Yoffie, a former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal and co-founder of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

SPJ NorCal will honor Weir and other First Amendment champions at its 35th annual James Madison Awards Dinner on Thursday evening, March 19, at the Delancey Street Town Hall, 600 The Embarcadero, San Francisco. Tickets for the event are $65 for SPJ members, $85 for non-members and $50 for students. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite. Table and bar sponsorships are also available. The evening will feature silent auctions for wine, books and other items. Festivities begin at 6 p.m. with a no-host reception.

In addition to Weir, this year’s James Madison Award recipients are:

The Sacramento Bee, along with the Bay Area News Group and KQED in the News Organization category.

The Sacramento Bee fought for transparency last year, consistently transforming the access it won into meaningful reporting on important issues. The Bee, joined by the LA Times, brought and prevailed in the first lawsuit by a news media organization to enforce state Senate Bill 1421, the landmark police transparency law that went into effect last year. The Bee also secured the largest-ever release of internal affairs complaints involving deputies at Sacramento-area jails. And, in a collaboration with ProPublica, the Bee published a series of deeply reported articles on California’s prison system, shedding light on jail violence and solitary confinement.

KQED and the Bay Area News Group spearheaded a historic collaboration of newsrooms to pry loose records subject to SB 1421. The initiative, dubbed the California Reporting Project and launched at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2019, as the law went into effect, eventually snowballed to include more than 40 newsrooms across the state. With reporters at KQED and Bay Area News Group leading the way, the effort has unlocked more than 2,000 case files detailing police misconduct and use of force, representing accountability journalism at its finest by putting readers and listeners ahead of would-be journalistic competitors. 

Reporting teams Robert Lewis and Jason Paladino, and Peter Byrne and Will Carruthers in the Professional Journalist category.

Paladino and Lewis stood tall in the face of a legal threat from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who, after the reporters received a database of police officer misconduct in response to a public records request, ordered them to destroy the records and claimed that simply possessing them was a criminal offense. Rather than back down to the top law enforcement official in the state, Lewis and Paladino dug deeper, leading a team of reporters to verify the contents of the database over months of painstaking reporting. The undertaking found more than 600 law enforcement officers had been convicted of a crime in the last decade ‒ by far the most comprehensive review of police wrongdoing in the state’s history.

Carruthers and Byrne, reporting for the North Bay Bohemian, utilized hundreds of pages of public records to expose the inner workings of a local foundation set up ostensibly to provide relief to victims in an area ravaged by wildfires in recent years. Their reporting showed how the Rebuild North Bay Foundation had performed little or no relief work, instead funneling money to benefit a handful of prominent local businesspeople. Carruthers and Byrne did this work in the face of fierce pressure in a community where the major sources of news are now owned by the same lobbyist who established the foundation they investigated.

Dr. Michael Golding and Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers in the Whistleblower category.

Golding, chief of psychiatry for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, risked his career by leaking a 161-page critique of the department’s mental health services to a court-appointed receiver overseeing prison health services. With 30,000 inmates requiring mental health services, the CDCR struggled to meet care-level mandates, yet issued reports that overstated compliance and understated lapses. A judge later determined that CDCR had “engaged in knowing presentation of misleading information.” Golding and a team of psychiatrists bravely labored to expose an ongoing mental health crisis and prompted reforms.

Fiers blew the whistle on an elaborate sign-stealing scheme by his former team, the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros, sparking an investigation late last year by Major League Baseball that came to a head in January, when the league announced the maximum fine it could levy on the Astros. The decision cost at least four managers their jobs, while several prominent analysts and former players, including a Hall of Famer, publicly castigated Fiers for coming forward to the press. As the league continues to reckon with the scandal’s impact, Fiers must live with the consequences of his brave disclosure in a sport known for locker-room agreements and a culture of secrecy. 

California Assemblyman Phil Ting in the Public Official category. Ting authored a pair of laws in recent months that bolster police transparency while preserving individual privacy. Assembly Bill 748 requires prompt disclosure of video and audio records following an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident involving law enforcement. Ting also introduced AB 1215, which places a moratorium on the use of facial recognition systems in conjunction with police body-worn cameras, technology that privacy experts say is fraught with potential privacy risks.

Attorneys Tenaya Rodewald and James Chadwick of the law firm Sheppard Mullin in the Legal Counsel category. Rodewald and Chadwick won key court battles on behalf of news organizations across California which established that SB 1421 applies retroactively to incidents that took place prior to the law taking effect. When a peace officers’ union appealed a Contra Costa County court’s decision in favor of the public’s right to know, Rodewald and Chadwick not only prevailed, but also persuaded the state Court of Appeal to publish its decision in the case, effectively applying the precedent statewide. The deft legal maneuvering made public years of use-of-force and misconduct records involving law enforcement which might otherwise have never seen the light of day.

Katey Rusch and Laurence Du Sault, and Freddy Brewster in the Student Journalist category. 

Rusch and Du Sault, students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, played a pivotal role in the “Criminal Cops” series of stories based on records Lewis and Paladino obtained. Working through Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, Rusch and Du Sault pursued stories about police officers with criminal convictions, focusing on Kern County. The students performed an extensive review of court records, police internal affairs reports and other documents that showed local police hired more than a dozen officers who “had been previously fired, sued for misconduct or convicted of a crime” in the past decade.

Brewster, an undergraduate student at Humboldt State University, harnessed public records to publish wide-ranging public interest journalism in both student and professional publications last year. His reporting, based on hundreds of pages of public documents, revealed that the Humboldt County sheriff’s office had suppressed online comments from community members critical of the agency’s handling of a high-profile homicide investigation, which had become the backbone of the popular Netflix documentary “Murder Mountain.” Brewster also showed how university police had issued dubious citations to students following the legalization of marijuana possession in California.

Kathi Duffel wins the Beverly Kees Educator Award.

Duffel, the student newspaper advisor at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, challenged a pre-publication censorship threat from the Lodi school district that put her job in jeopardy. Her fight to publish the story of an 18-year old student working in the adult entertainment Industry drew national attention, showing fellow journalism advisers how to defeat attempts at prior restraint. “My overriding goal,” Duffel said, “is to say to the district, ‘Every time you attempt this type of overreach, this type of abusive power, you will be held accountable, not just to me, not just to my students, but to everyone.’” Duffel’s students ultimately published the piece without administrative review, while Duffel kept her job teaching the next generation of journalists. 

The founder of Open Vallejo in the Citizen category. Open Vallejo is a new publication serving its namesake community with rigorous reporting and relentless use of the California Public Records Act to shine a light on a troubled local government. The founder of the news organization, who currently publishes anonymously, shed new light on police violence and misconduct last year and forced officials to disclose information they sought to shield from public scrutiny. At a time when there are perilously few journalists reporting in Vallejo, this citizen has provided a beacon of hope to a local community desperately in need of sunshine. 

The First Amendment Coalition in the Nonprofit category. When San Francisco police raided freelance journalist Bryan Carmody’s home and office and seized his notes, records and professional equipment, FAC jumped in immediately and led a legal fight to unseal the affidavits used to justify the search, later suing Mayor London Breed for records related to the raid. At the same time, FAC has been at the forefront of numerous battles over the scope of California’s new landmark policy transparency law. In the California Supreme Court, meanwhile, FAC challenged the governor’s practice of keeping entire files of clemency proceedings under seal.

YR Media, formerly known as Youth Radio, led by Ellin O’Leary, in the Community News Media category. O’Leary has guided Youth Radio (which rebranded as YR Media in 2018) for more than 25 years. The Oakland-based program has empowered young people to investigate the impact of complex government systems, producing deeply reported stories on a wide range of issues including foster care, juvenile justice, public schools, and child sex trafficking. O’Leary is retiring this year and will pass the torch to a new Youth Radio leader who will continue in her legacy by providing a training ground for young journalists to pursue stories spotlighting inequities and pushing for institutional accountability.

Freelance journalist Bryan Carmody, recipient of a special citation for Speaking Truth to Power, and attorneys Duffy Carolan and Tom Burke, recipients of a special citation for defending California’s Shield Law.

Longtime San Francisco-based stringer Carmody’s home and office were raided by San Francisco police last May in a brazen attempt to identify who provided Carmody with an explosive police report on the sudden death of public defender (and previous James Madison Award recipient) Jeff Adachi. Carmody stood tall against the blatant violation of California’s Shield Law, which protects the right of journalists to keep the identity of their sources confidential. Carmody sued the SFPD and spoke at length in the press about the dangers of overzealous attempts by the government to circumvent First Amendment and Shield Law protections.

Carolan, of the law firm Jassy Vick Carolan, represented SPJ NorCal, the First Amendment Coalition and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in persuading San Francisco Superior Court judges to unseal search warrants they had issued against Carmody. Those unsealings revealed that the judges knew or should have known that Carmody was a journalist, and therefore the raids violated California’s Shield Law. Burke, of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, persuaded those same judges to rescind the warrants, and to order the SFPD to file declarations confirming that information belonging to Carmody and obtained through the property seizures had been destroyed. Taken together, the stellar work by the two attorneys not only defended Carmody’s rights as a journalist but also reminded the public, through local, national and international news media, of the critical importance of a strong reporter’s shield law.

Please visit spjnorcal.org for more information about the awards and past recipients. For questions about the awards dinner, please email the SPJ NorCal FOI Committee at spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com.

*NOTE: As is always the case, any James Madison award recipients who are involved with SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee recused themselves from judging deliberations for the category in which they were considered.