SPJ NorCal Honors First Amendment Champions in James Madison Freedom of Information Awards

The Northern Chapter of the Society Professional Journalists announces its 36th Annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, recognizing the people and organizations of Northern California who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment. SPJ NorCal presents these awards on Madison’s birthday, March 16, Freedom of Information Day, during National Sunshine Week. 

We dedicate this year’s awards to Tim Crews, the legendary editor and self-proclaimed “cranky country publisher” of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, which he founded in the early 1990s. Sporting his trademark suspenders and vigorous white beard, Crews constantly fired off public records requests to dig into the government of Willows, a town of 6,000 in the Central Valley. Crews’ mantra for the paper:  “If we don’t report it, who will?”

Tim Crews. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

Crews was locked up for five days in Tehama County jail in 2000 after refusing to divulge anonymous sources. After doing his time, he strode out and pluckily held up his jail-issued toothbrush to the waiting Associated Press photographer. SPJ NorCal awarded Crews a James Madison lifetime achievement award in 2011, and he kept on with his muckraking: Crews successfully overcame a shield law violation when the district attorney unlawfully subpoenaed his notes, and won a First Amendment victory in 2013, when the state Court of Appeal found he didn’t need to pay the legal fees of the school board he had sued for withholding records. As Crews told the Poynter Institute, “If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It’s just the American way.” Crews died last November at age 77.

 

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement

James Chadwick

James Chadwick is a media and First Amendment attorney who has for thirty years fought successfully against censorship and to uphold journalists’ right to investigate how government agencies, officials and employees are conducting the people’s business. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chadwick represented Mother Jones magazine in a legal fight against attempted censorship by a billionaire political donor, and for years worked out of the San Jose Mercury News’s newsroom, vetting stories. His successful cases affirmed that the news media may reproduce images in editorial and promotional contexts, and that California law protects news media from strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPP suits. “Being able to look back on a career in which I can say, honestly, I stood up for the truth,” Chadwick told SPJ, “That’s a great, rewarding feeling.”

His award is named in memory of Norwin S. Yoffie, a former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal and co-founder of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

Chadwick spoke with SPJ-NorCal about his toughest cases and biggest legal victories. 

 

Cartoonist

Susie Cagle

Susie Cagle harnesses a unique skill set to marry visually informative illustrations with deeply-reported words. Her work last year covered everything from a sobering series on the impact of new groundwater regulation on small California farmers and underrepresented communities to a widely-shared story showing how corporate consolidation has exacerbated inequities in the American healthcare system during the coronavirus pandemic. Cagle’s long-form cartoons set a benchmark of excellence.

 

Community Media

Open Vallejo

Open Vallejo, a new nonprofit publication founded by Geoff King, has had an outsized impact since its inception. Open Vallejo’s reporting exposed a dark tradition among Vallejo Police officers of bending the corners of their officer badges to allegedly mark fatal shootings of civilians. The story prompted ongoing outside investigations of the troubled department and cost several officers their jobs. In a separate story, Open Vallejo highlighted decades of domestic abuse allegations against a sitting city councilmember who, before the piece was published, had been a front-runner to become mayor of Vallejo.

 

Electronic Access

Electronic Frontier Foundation 

 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation created the Atlas of Surveillance, an online database of law enforcement surveillance activity throughout the United States. More than 600 students and volunteers joined EFF Director of Investigations Dave Maass to contribute research to the open-source research project. Over the course of 18 months, the group dove into public datasets, news articles, press releases, and meeting minutes to develop a map – searchable by city and state – that tracks the presence of surveillance tech like license-plate readers, facial recognition, body-worn police cameras, drones, and partnerships between police departments and Amazon’s Ring. Tens of thousands of viewers have visited the trove of information and reporters across the country have used it to inform their reporting on local surveillance.

 

Andrew Bridges, Meghan Fenzel, Victoria Baranetsky

Andrew Bridges, Meghan Fenzel and Victoria Baranetsky



Baranetsky, Bridges, and Fenzel represented the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in a landmark suit that sets a useful precedent for accessing government records. The news outlet sought records from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that would show the number of weapons linked to criminal activity that had formerly been owned by law enforcement. The government won summary judgment in the trial court, arguing that the ATF would have had to create a “new” record for the media outlet, which the federal Freedom of Information Act does not require agencies to do. CIR’s attorneys appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled the opposite: extracting a subset of existing data from an electronic database does not amount to creation of a “new” record. The published opinion has significance beyond CIR’s case, preventing agencies from evading requests for information stored in databases with the “new” record argument.

 

Amitai Schwartz, Alan Schlosser, and Kathleen Guneratne

Amitai Schwartz and Kathleen Guneratne

Schwartz, Schlosser, and Guneratne represented the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild in a suit that helps ensure journalists and civilians don’t need deep pockets to request government records in California. The lawyers filed suit against the City of Hayward, after the city charged NLG nearly $3,000 for city staff to redact the police body camera footage that the NLG had requested under state law.  The attorneys’ advocacy resulted in a California Supreme Court opinion holding that state public records law does not allow agencies to charge for the costs of routine redactions of government records that are kept in an electronic format. The published opinion was even more significant in the context of SB 1421, the recent California law that made public records of officer-involved shootings, serious uses of force, and certain police officer misconduct. The NLG ruling makes clear that agencies cannot avoid releasing electronic records by charging requesters exorbitant fees.

 

News Organization

San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight makes regular and inventive use of public records in covering local government in Santa Clara County. Since the outlet’s founding two years ago, the newsroom’s reporters have used records requests to track city officials who signed non-disclosure agreements with Google and to reveal that Mayor Sam Liccardo hired a public relations expert with taxpayer money to boost his national profile. The newsroom has pursued local government accountability reporting, including reporting on the lack of diversity on San Jose’s planning commission, after which voters changed the commission’s structure during the November 2020 election.

 

News Organization

NBC News
Olivia Solon, Ezra Kaplan, April Glaser, Cyrus Farivar, Adiel Kaplan

Ezra Kaplan, April Glaser, Cyrus Farivar and Adiel Kaplan of NBC News

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country last spring, tech reporters at NBC News investigated coronavirus outbreaks among the essential workers at Amazon warehouses. The journalists sought public records from 25 health departments across the country in communities with Amazon warehouses. The team’s reporting demonstrated how tightly the company was controlling information, frustrating even the government agencies tasked with getting important public health data. To further fill out the picture, the reporters visited unofficial online worker forums, where workers had launched their own outbreak tracking efforts.

 

Beverly Kees Educator Award 

Juan Gonzales

For an untold number of working journalists today, Juan Gonzales was their first instructor in the craft of news reporting. From his founding of bilingual community newspaper El Tecolote with San Francisco State students in 1970, to his 35 years heading the journalism department at City College of San Francisco, reporters have benefitted from Gonzales’ quiet mentorship. As advisor to the City College Guardsman newspaper, Gonzales is a champion of independent, student-led journalism; Guardsman reporters have covered the criminal trial of college administrators, probed a viral attack on the school’s computer systems, and found a large number of maintenance issues at a campus building that had been promised to be state-of-the-art. Gonzales’ contribution to journalism stretches far beyond his own work, fostering an approach to impactful reporting that his students take with them to news organizations throughout the country. The Beverly Kees Educator Award is named for the journalist, FOI activist, and former SPJ NorCal president who died in 2004.

 

Nonprofit Organization

U.S. Right to Know 

Carey Gillam, Sainath Suryanarayanan, Gary Ruskin, Stacy Malkan of U.S. Right to Know

U.S. Right to Know, an Oakland-based investigative research group, filed public records requests with universities and government agencies to shed light on the influence of chemical company Monsanto in the regulatory and policy process around the country’s food system. The nonprofit unearthed documents showing that Monsanto employees recruited public university professors to write policy briefs about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to support the company’s public relations goals. Concerned that the group’s FOIA requests would uncover its influence in academic circles, Monsanto created a public relations campaign to discredit U.S. Right to Know; the nonprofit exposed those efforts, too.

 

Professional Journalist

Seth Rosenfeld 

In his extensive project for the San Francisco Public Press, investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld dug into an alarming vacuum of information around the safety of Lyft and Uber rides in California. Rosenfeld revealed that the industry’s state regulator hid data on crashes and injuries from public view because of a single footnote in rules that were adopted after intense industry lobbying. Rosenfeld also pored over reams of lawsuits, showing how settlements with accident victims, handled out of court, obscured systematic problems with how the apps hired and trained drivers. Within two months of the report, political pressure led to the footnote’s repeal.

 

Citizen

Oakland Privacy, Mike Katz-Lacabe, Dan Rubins, Solange Echeverria

The advocacy of Oakland Privacy‘s activists pushed the City of Vallejo to follow California law on its use of surveillance technology. At a live-streamed meeting during the early days of the COVID pandemic, Vallejo’s city council approved the police’s deployment of a cell-phone surveillance tech known as a Stingray – without creating a usage policy in a public process, as is required by state law. On Mike Katz-Lacabe’s initiative, Oakland Privacy, Solange Echeverria, and Dan Rubins sued the city, and then, after winning a preliminary ruling, Oakland Privacy fought for revisions to the Stingray policy that were then incorporated by the city council at public meetings. Those changes included banning using the Stingray on First Amendment activity like protests and requiring that quarterly logs of the technology’s usage be released to the public.

 

Public Official

Manohar Raju

San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju and the office’s Integrity Unit launched CopMonitor SF, an extensive online database of records about local law enforcement and other government actors.  Many of the records included in the CopMonitor SF database were made public by Senate Bill 1421, the 2018 law that made an unprecedented amount of law enforcement use of force and misconduct records public. In creating and maintaining the growing database, Raju and his office have made these records about San Francisco law enforcement more accessible to the public.

 

Public Service

John Whitney

Former Vallejo Police Captain John Whitney demonstrated great integrity in blowing the whistle on a grisly tradition among police ranks, speaking with reporters about the practice of some police within the department bending their badges to commemorate fatal shootings of civilians. Whitney’s revelations were a pivotal part of news outlet Open Vallejo’s reporting on the practice. After bravely speaking the truth, Whitney was forced out of his job and filed a retaliation claim against the city, arguing his ousting was the result of alerting officials of the badge bending and other misconduct within the police department.

 

Whistleblower

Steve O’Brien

Steve O’Brien is a courageous administrator who risked his career in intercollegiate athletics to speak up on behalf of whistleblowers. O’Brien was the Deputy Athletic Director at San Jose State University when he was terminated for protesting retaliation against two credible whistleblowers within his department, one of whom reported alleged sexual assault of female athletes by a then-employee. Shortly after O’Brien’s termination, the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into how Title IX complaints are handled at SJSU. O’Brien has filed a lawsuit against the school for retaliation.

 

Whistleblower

Mark DeSio 

Mark DeSio was the communications director for the troubled California Board of Equalization when its Chair, Fiona Ma, ordered a series of audits of the agency. DeSio provided critical information to Ma and state investigators that uncovered a range of BOE corruption, including nepotism, self-dealing, steering donations to favored charities, unauthorized hiring and salary increases, and misuse of employee time for political events. The findings spurred the gutting of the BOE in 2017 – but DeSio was dismissed and struggled to find employment. His wrongful termination suit was settled in 2020 with recovery of lost wages and attorney fees. DeSio’s courage in exposing wrongdoing was a public service, creating better government in California.

 

Student Journalist

Noel Anaya 

When Noel Anaya aged out of the California foster care system at age 21, he petitioned the Santa Clara County Family Court to allow him to record and photograph his last hearing, a proceeding rarely seen by the public. Anaya then initiated an investigation in collaboration with Youth Radio (now YR Media) to discover why he was never adopted during 20 years in the system. Anaya asserted the little-known right of foster care youth to obtain copies of their court and social service records, revealing the system’s often biased decision-making that determines their fate. Unadopted sensitively dives into the story of Anaya and other youth who have grown up in foster care, looking for their “forever family.”

 

Broadcast Journalism

NBC Bay Area

Michael Bott, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Jeremy Carroll, Mark Villarreal, Alex Bozovic, and Robert Wellington 

Michael Bott, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Jeremy Carroll

Amid the coverage of a corruption scandal at San Francisco City Hall, NBC Bay Area stood out by unearthing records to dive into the unfolding details of malfeasance among the city’s senior leadership, which ultimately saw four department heads step down or removed. The clear reportage of the team – including Jaxon Van Derbeken, Michael Bott, Mark Villarreal, Jeremy Carroll, Alex Bozovic, and Robert Wellington – helped the public make sense of a tangled web of allegations featuring bribery, graft and improperly pumped-up garbage collection rates that together added up to costing taxpayers some $95 million. NBC Bay Area doggedly pursued – and continues pursuing – new revelations on this breach of the public’s trust.

 

The James Madison Awards are hosted by SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee. Members recuse themselves from voting in categories in which they have a conflict. 

Co-Chairs Lauren Smiley and Christine Peek

Members

Laura Wenus
Derek Kerr
Ellin O’Leary
Richard Knee
Thomas Peele
Randy Lyman
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
Aaron R. Field
Karl Mondon
Van Swearingen
Alex Emslie
Larry Sokoloff
Matt Drange

 

All photos used with permission. Writing copyright SPJ NorCal.

 
 
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