SPJ NorCal Honors First Amendment Attorney James Wheaton For Defending Press Freedom


The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honors First Amendment attorney James Wheaton with its Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement award, part of our chapter’s James Madison Freedom of Information Awards

James Wheaton is a longtime cornerstone of the Bay Area’s First Amendment community. He co-founded the Oakland-based First Amendment Project, leading it and serving as staff counsel for three decades until his semi-retirement last year —though he admits it’s so far been “more ‘semi’ than ‘retired’.”

Under Wheaton’s leadership, the First Amendment Project won many fights defending journalists and documentary filmmakers, assisting one reporter for decades to pry records from the FBI that showed its infiltration of state politics and the University of California. He remains involved with and advises both the First Amendment Project and the Environmental Law Foundation, which he also founded 30 years ago and led until last year, frequently taking on state regulators to hold them accountable for protecting the public interest in clean air, land, and water. 

Currently, Wheaton is expanding his teaching responsibilities at the Stanford and UC Berkeley graduate schools of journalism, where, as adjunct faculty, he has mentored countless aspiring lawyers and journalists on media and First Amendment law. Wheaton provides advice to activists and podcasters; acts as legal counsel for student publications at Cal and Stanford; and fields daily questions from former students granted a “lifetime right” to contact him with First Amendment questions.

Under Wheaton’s stewardship, the popular pocket guides to state public access laws, produced by First Amendment Project and SPJ NorCal, became a fixture in the pockets of journalists, activists, and organizations statewide. He served on the SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee for many years, and has twice received a James Madison Award as Legal Counsel, in part for his contribution to co-writing and enacting California’s anti-SLAPP statute and its amendments.

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.


Some of Wheaton’s colleagues throughout the years shared their thoughts. 


Geoff King, Open Vallejo founder 

Jim Wheaton is a character ripped from the pages of a good piece of fiction: a cowboy boots-with-suit-wearing, motorcycle-riding, larger-than-life lawyer; his accomplishments are so voluminous, I would need a 14-day extension just to enumerate them. So instead, I will say this: 

Jim’s commitment to justice and community are very real and deeply felt. Through law, policy, mentorship and friendship, he has improved the lives of countless of his fellow human beings, including mine. This award is richly deserved and well-earned. 

Congratulations, Jim.


Randy Lyman, SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee member; former San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter

I remember something Jim said in a speech in 1997 that inspires me to this day: The role of a free press is to tell you what you need to know to live in a democracy. To me, he’s always been more than a defender of the First Amendment, he’s been an inspiration.


Peter Scheer, President, Board of Directors at First Amendment Coalition

Jim Wheaton has been a stalwart defender of First Amendment freedoms for many years, both as a teacher (of journalists) and a litigator (on behalf of journalists and others). His focus has been in the areas of press freedom and access to government records. In one notable FOIA case, he devoted much time and energy in a successful effort to force the federal government’s release of records of investigations of student activists at Berkeley in the 1960s. Much of what we know of that important chapter in US and California history comes from this litigation.

At his nonprofit, the First Amendment Project, Jim had the good sense and good luck to hire David Greene, a terrific litigator who is now a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. David was instrumental in the Project’s legal successes, and he and Jim were an effective team.


David Greene, Civil Liberties Director and Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation

I had the pleasure of working alongside Jim for 12 years at the First Amendment Project – still the best job and the best working relationship I will ever have. Jim deservedly gets a ton of credit for co-founding First Amendment Project and being a leading light on free speech and open government matters in the Bay Area; Northern California more broadly; and the country. But less lauded, and equally important, is the critical role he played bringing the free speech and free press groups together with the environmental movement, identifying broad common ground, and building lasting partnerships. This helped foster collaboration and mutual support among the broader activism and advocacy communities. That is so typical of Jim’s work. He’s a multiplier, making everyone around him, and even far from him, more effective.


Nic Feliciano, former Operations Director and Legal Assistant, First Amendment Project

I’ve had the great honor of working alongside Jim, running the First Amendment Project as its Operations Director and Legal Assistant for over 15 years. Jim’s commitment to his work and his people was truly astounding. The minute I walked through those doors I knew I could be myself and learn a lot! I can talk on and on about what an incredibly passionate lawyer Jim was, and how well he chose cases, or how masterful he was at crafting legal arguments, or how charismatic he is on TV and radio, but the thing I want to highlight the most is what an incredible leader, boss and person he was.

Jim rode hard for people. His empathy and kindness knew no bounds. When he told you to give him a call anytime, he answered every time. To this day, it is not uncommon to see students and colleagues from many years back pop into the office or call on the phone. Jim led not with an iron fist, but by example. He’s an incredible builder of not only things (he built by hand every shelf we had at our office), but of community and relationships that last long after the victories and “work” is done.

It’s easy to be an incredible person when things are going smoothly. It’s the grit, kindness and compassion he shows when things get hard that impress me the most about him. He has truly been one of the great mentors and advocates of my lifetime and I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to honor him in this way.



For more information, contact spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com