SPJ NorCal Honors Transparency Champions in James Madison Freedom of Information Awards

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE MARCH 16, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO – The Northern California Chapter of the Society Professional Journalists announces its 37th Annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, recognizing people and organizations 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. 

This year we honor longtime Bay Area First Amendment attorney James Wheaton for his career achievement, State Senator Mike McGuire for shepherding a landmark press rights bill through the state legislature, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang, and others who did excellent work furthering the public’s right to know in 2021.

SPJ NorCal presents these awards on Madison’s birthday, March 16, Freedom of Information Day, during National Sunshine Week. 

 

Advocacy

Sam Ferguson, Seena Forouzan, Michael Reiser Jr., Bianca Torres, Tyler Meade and Michael Reiser 

Representing journalists facing burdensome wait times for public records, this legal team compelled the Oakland Police Department to reform their public records process to reduce delays and make records promptly available. On behalf of journalists Scott Morris, Sarah Belle Lin, and Brian Krans – plus citizens’ coalition Oakland Privacy and its director of research, Michael Katz-Lacabe – the team successfully sued OPD in a class action lawsuit, forcing the department to clear its backlog of public records requests and ensure timely responses going forward. The coalition’s persistence has had immediately tangible results: since the lawsuit was filed in 2020, OPD has cleared over 4,000 outstanding records requests. 

 

Citizen 

Anonymoose 

Under the name “Anonymoose,” this citizen has advanced the public’s right to know about the inner workings of San Francisco government, through persistent and skillful use of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance and the California Public Records Act. (Doing so anonymously is rare but rooted in law, given individuals do not need to identify themselves in order to request government records.) The revelations often are of vital public interest like government secrecy, corruption and police misconduct. When denied records, Anonymoose has persisted, effectively bringing cases to the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. Importantly, Anonymoose generously shared records with journalists, who reported on their implications, and with the broader community by posting records on social media and searchable online databases.

 

Beverly Kees Educator Award

Paul DeBolt 

Paul DeBolt holds his son, David, in The Advocate newsroom at Contra Costa College, where he was the paper’s advisor for decades (Photo courtesy of David DeBolt)

Paul DeBolt is the long-time chair of the journalism department at Contra Costa College in San Pablo. DeBolt retired in 2020 after 40 years teaching and advising the student newspaper, The Advocate. In a tribute published in The Athletic, former student Marc Carig wrote that DeBolt had an indelible impact on his path into journalism: DeBolt championed the First Amendment and dedicated himself to “working long hours in a place that is easily overlooked,” Carig wrote, “for the benefit of people who are easily overlooked.” In remarks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier said DeBolt “introduced Contra Costa’s diverse student population to the basics of journalism. Through his tutelage and practical experience, students learned the value that quality, accurate reporting can have on communities across the country. Paul even counted among his students his own son David, who would eventually go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his role in reporting on Oakland’s Ghost Ship Fire.”

This award is named in honor of Beverly Kees, a prominent Bay Area journalist and San Francisco State journalism professor, who died in 2004. 

 

 

 

Electronic Access

Chris Arvin 

Chris Arvin produces high-quality maps of election data in San Francisco, year after year. Arvin uses public elections data to create visualizations that allow the public to easily view and explore voting patterns across the city’s precincts. The maps can be viewed on their website, Election Map SF, and are often featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and other local media, making electoral data concretely and tangibly accessible.

 

Legal Counsel

Rachel Matteo-Boehm 

Rachel Matteo-Boehm led a team of lawyers representing Courthouse News Service, in its decade-long fight for timely access to court records — which resulted in a significant win for press rights. Matteo-Boehm is a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) in San Francisco, where she co-leads the office’s Media and First Amendment group. She led a BCLP legal team from the case’s inception in 2011, argued the case before the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and continued to shepherd it through the Ninth Circuit’s third and final decision on the case in 2020. The case resulted in a pivotal decision that confirmed the press and public’s right to timely access to judicial records, particularly in newly filed civil complaints.

 

Podcast Journalism

“On Our Watch” – Sukey Lewis, Sandhya Dirks

“On Our Watch” is a testament to the power of public records. Sukey Lewis, Sandhya Dirks, and their editorial and production team from KQED and NPR, shed light on law enforcement misconduct through records obtained by the California Reporting Project, the collaborative journalistic effort to unveil police records after the historic passage of SB 1421. Lewis and Dirks highlight the difficult road to getting the records in the first place, and shed light on specific cases of officer misconduct revealed once the previously hidden materials finally became public, playing interrogation and police body cam audio for their listeners. KQED also hosted a public event – in-person and streamed on YouTube – which acted as a tutorial on how journalists can go about requesting records for their own reporting.

 

Print and Digital Journalism – Large Division

Andrew Graham and Ethan Varian, The Press Democrat 

Andrew Graham and Ethan Varian exposed weak oversight of affordable housing agreements in a series of stories in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat. To investigate the series, Graham and Varian made nearly a dozen requests for public records and reviewed planning and zoning documents, affordable housing agreements, court filings, bond applications, and compliance reports filed by developers.  Following the investigation, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed the Community Development Commission to bolster oversight, including requiring more on-site visits and documentation from developers to show they are meeting the terms of affordable housing agreements. 

 

Print and Digital Journalism  – Large Division 

Sacramento Bee 

The Sacramento Bee advocated for access to public records for exceptional reporting across its newsroom. The Bee sued for access to records on the shooting of Darrell Richards by Sacramento police and for records in the possession of the California Department of Public Health, which the paper used to report on a scheme to defraud the Department out of millions of dollars.  Also with public records, the Bee did groundbreaking reporting on COVID-19 death data in California’s “CalREDIE” database, and probed a statement by the Placer County Sheriff that falsely attributed a local man’s death to a COVID-19 vaccine.  The Bee requested that warrants and warrant applications be unsealed to report on multiple investigations by the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife. 

 

Print and Digital Journalism – Small Division

Dave Waddell, ChicoSol

Dave Waddell probed three cases in which law enforcement officers in Butte County shot and killed Desmond Phillips, Stephen Vest, and Tyler Rushing.  Waddell dove into the cases for the news site ChicoSol, using records and police body-cam recordings that he fought for under California public records law, to investigate the official accounts of the circumstances around all three deaths. His reporting revealed that Rushing was in a deputy’s grasp when shot and raised questions about the use of force against Vest and the investigation into Phillips’ death.  

 

TV and Video Journalism

Andie Judson, ABC10

Andie Judson investigated abuses in the state’s conservatorship system in a searing series for ABC10 in Sacramento. Through extensive use of court and government records and empathetic interviews with conservatees and their loved ones, Judson delves into the complex structures that give conservators immense power. She unveils how a ring of conservators and attorneys work hand in hand with each other, but not always in the best interest of the families they are supposed to serve. Judson also spotlights the lackluster enforcement by state oversight bodies charged with holding a multi-billion-dollar industry accountable.

 

Data Visualization

Ari Sen

Ari Sen tracked the use of surveillance technologies to monitor student speech online. Sen filed numerous public records requests to school districts and public colleges to reveal their use of monitoring technologies that spy on students’ email, social media, Hangout chats and Google Docs. To assess the number of students who had been surveilled, Sen also combined data from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending across the country, with government school enrollment data. Sen published the data visualization and story in the Dallas Morning News, where he was an intern while he was a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. 

 

Public Official

State Senator Mike McGuire

State Senator Mike McGuire successfully shepherded a law barring law enforcement officers from obstructing the work of journalists covering protests, following police abuses of reporters across the state during the George Floyd demonstrations of 2020. With support from a coalition of civil liberties groups and journalists, including our SPJ chapter, Sen. McGuire beat back an effort by law enforcement interests to gut the bill, Senate Bill 98. He then worked alongside the coalition with Governor Gavin Newsom’s legislative staff to make the final language acceptable to the governor, who had vetoed similar legislation in 2020. Newsom signed the bill into law in October, and it became effective at the start of this year.

 

Source/Whistleblower

Sophie Zhang 

While working as a data scientist at Facebook, Sophie Zhang struggled to dismantle fake accounts used by governments across the world to sway public opinion and undermine elections. With Facebook focusing on disinformation in the United States, Zhang says she was not afforded the resources to abate the dire consequences of fake political engagement abroad, which imperiled lives and democracies. She lobbied Facebook to implement more stringent policies, but the resulting ones lacked enforcement. When Zhang was fired, she declined a $64,000 severance package that included a non-disparagement agreement, posting a lengthy memo to Facebook’s staff, explaining the scale and gravity of political abuses on the platform. After she left, Zhang shared her story with The Guardian, backing her claims with extensive documentation. Zhang’s disclosures highlighted the need for vital reforms — and created a path for other social media whistleblowers. 

 

Special Citation – Truth to Power

Ally Markovich, Berkeleyside  

After a high-profile lawsuit was filed last summer against a Berkeley teacher, Berkeleyside’s Ally Markovich dug deeper. She dove into sexual misconduct allegations against a former Berkeley High School teacher, revealing how inaction by school district officials allowed the teacher’s behavior, hidden in plain sight for decades, to go unchecked. The damning reporting, bolstered by Berkeleyside’s willingness to take the school district to court to enforce the California Public Records Act, drew attention from local and state officials looking to ensure that substantiated claims of sexual misconduct could not be shielded from disclosure.

 

Student Journalist

Staff of The Citizen, Peralta Community College District

The Citizen’s ongoing coverage of a costly campus security contract continues to spur impact. Making deft use of public records, student journalists at the paper revealed that multiple private firms that the Peralta Community College Board of Trustees was preparing to hire were unlicensed. The students were unrelenting when faced with months-long delays from officials in releasing documents, demonstrating a remarkable determination to follow how public dollars are spent. If not for their reporting efforts, which were picked up by several regional media outlets, this important story would have gone uncovered.

 

Student Journalist

Freddy Brewster and Katie Licari, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism 

Katie Licari and Freddy Brewster, students at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, investigated the fledgling California Secretary of State’s Office of Election Cybersecurity. The duo revealed how government staffers created a database of purported misinformation in the 2020 election and reported posts to social media companies. In another piece, they tracked the trickle of slanted information about California’s political candidates through a new crop of partisan news outlets.

 

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement

James Wheaton 

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.

Wheaton’s colleagues discuss his impact here.

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.

 

 

The James Madison Awards are hosted by SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee. Judges recused 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

Larry Sokoloff

Matt Drange

 

For more information contact us at spjnorcalfoi@gmail.com.

 
 
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