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

With its 38th annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists recognizes people and organizations whose work advances transparency, freedom of information and the public’s right to know. SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee presents these awards in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment. 

This year, our honorees include an attorney crusading for open government access, a radio reporter using open records to discover missteps in preventing a deadly fire, and an educator whose students sued their own college to obtain records otherwise under lock and key.

The committee invites winners and their supporters to attend a dinner on Madison’s birthday, March 16, on Freedom of Information Day, during National Sunshine Week. Ticket information is available here, with early bird prices until the end of February 23. Please join us in celebrating these honorees.

Career Achievement

Attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan

Attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan wins the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement award. Boylan’s track record of getting his clients access to hard-fought, revelatory government records spans every corner of the Golden State and permeates much of northern California’s most impactful journalism. Based in Davis, Calif., Boylan has represented both journalists and private citizens in public records disputes for more than 30 years, often working with small local media outlets that lack legal resources. Half a dozen of Boylan’s clients have been recognized by SPJ NorCal over the years, thanks in large part to Boylan’s determined, creative representation in the face of recalcitrant government agencies.

Boylan has a long list of notable government transparency wins under his belt. He has secured an appellate court decision stating that police officers have no expectation of privacy in footage from cameras mounted on dashboards. He successfully defended several investigative journalists facing defamation suits that retaliated against unflattering reporting. Boylan secured an injunction on behalf of a citizen group that sought public records from a scandal-plagued mayor’s office. He has won the release of hundreds of thousands of emails documenting corruption in a rural public school district. He secured a legal victory that led to the state legislature strengthening the California Public Records Act by ensuring that government agencies aren’t able to shift litigation fees onto requesters. Boylan also kept plainly public government financial records from being hidden from view during open meetings. And he has helped numerous journalists at publications of all sizes avoid litigation altogether by successfully negotiating for the release of newsworthy public documents.

Boylan, an adjunct professor, has been invited to speak about the importance of government transparency at universities around the world. Boylan’s work with his longtime client Tim Crews, former publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, was highlighted in a 2010 article in California Lawyer magazine, “The Sunshine Boys.” 

“You’re not going to get rich doing public records cases,” Boylan told the magazine. “But it’s really interesting work.” he added. 

“It’s fun when they underestimate you. It’s fun creating attitude adjustments,” Boylan said.

His legal prowess and readiness to help have left an impression on transparency advocates around Northern California.

“Paul Boylan is THE reason we have any form of transparency in our small town government. Without him, our citizenry would still be in the dark,” said Caroline Titus, former longtime editor and publisher of the Ferndale Enterprise. “His work resonates years after his successful challenges to those that would rather we just didn’t know.”

“Working in a newsroom of five for a small, rural weekly, lawyers like Paul Boylan, who are not only brilliant and accomplished but willing to take cases on contingency, are often all that stands between the public’s right to know and a recalcitrant agency,” said Thadeus Greenson, news editor of the North Coast Journal. “Paul is in a class of one, always willing to pick up the phone and lend his time and expertise, often without hope of being compensated. His contributions to our readers’ access to information they rightfully own have been beyond measure.” 

“Paul Boylan is such an integral and longstanding part of the FOI and free-press community in California it’s hard to imagine where we’d be without his creativity, enthusiasm and willingness to take the fight to City Hall (or whomever the scofflaw du jour is),” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Paul is all-in, always. He’s unafraid. He’s an indispensable ally; I wouldn’t want to be his opposing counsel. Paul and his cheerfully fearless approach have made a huge difference for good and I look forward to continuing to work with him for many years to come. Congratulations, Paul.” 

Beverly Kees Educator Award

Laney College Journalism Department Chair Eleni Economides Gastis

In just a few short years, Eleni Economides Gastis has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to her students as the journalism department chair at Laney College. Gastis is also the adviser to the college’s award-winning student newspaper, The Citizen. She brings an infectious energy and enthusiasm for hard-nosed public interest reporting. Gastis also emphasizes data journalism, a core investigative reporting skill rarely offered at community colleges. Notably, student journalists studying under Gastis sued the Peralta Community College District this year for contracts, emails and financial records reporters have made repeated attempts to access. The students also requested documentation showing exactly how many records requests the district has yet to respond to. In their ongoing suit, the students challenge administrators’ refusal to provide the documents and accuse them of violating the California Public Records Act.

Professional Journalists – Print/Digital (Larger Outlet)

San Francisco Chronicle Reporters Trisha Thadani and Joaquin Palomino

In their “Broken Homes” series, Trisha Thadani and Joaquin Palomino brought the full force of public records to shine a light on the experiences of tenants in a type of subsidized accommodation called “supportive housing.” Some 6,000 of the city’s formerly homeless residents live in this housing, usually in the form of decaying residential hotels in and near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Compiling and parsing thousands of government records, the series unearthed woeful conditions in the hotels and compelled civic leaders to react. The series showed how the city evicts many supportive housing tenants for the very same reasons that qualified them for subsidy to begin with, and revealed that 40 percent of the Tenderloin’s overdoses happen inside these hotels. After the first installments of the series, voters passed a ballot measure creating more oversight for the city agency responsible for the system, and the mayor earmarked millions to pay case managers higher wages and fund building repairs.

Professional Journalist – Print/Digital (Smaller Outlet)

Open Vallejo Reporter Laurence Du Sault 

Through tireless and meticulous reporting for Open Vallejo and ProPublica, Laurence Du Sault has brought much-needed sunshine to the city of Vallejo’s troubled police force. In uncovering thousands of pages of public police and court records, Du Sault found that more than one third of Vallejo’s recent police killings involved officers who were under investigation for a prior killing. Perhaps most troubling for a city desperate for answers and accountability, Du Sault’s reporting exposed the disappointing progress the department had made toward improvement: More than two years after an audit overseen by the California Department of Justice recommended 45 policing reforms, the city of Vallejo had implemented just two.

Palo Alto Daily Post Reporter Emily Mibach

More than three years ago, Palo Alto Daily Post reporter Emily Mibach received a tip. The general manager of a public agency in San Mateo County had received $875,000 to leave his post, the anonymous tipster alleged. Mibach immediately filed a public records request to get more information, but was stymied by the accused manager. She persevered, and after a court battle lasting two and a half years, was able to access the documents. They revealed that, behind closed doors, the agency had covered up sexual harassment with $1.8 million in settlements — $1 million to an employee who had accused the general manager of sexually harassing her, and $875,000 to the general manager. As a result of Mibach’s reporting, this agency is in the public spotlight and advocates have called for legislative changes to close the loophole that allowed the settlements.

Professional Journalist – Radio/Audio

CapRadio Reporter Scott Rodd

When visiting media moved on from the fire-ravaged town of Grizzly Flats, Scott Rodd stayed. His year-long investigation into the 2021 Caldor Fire for CapRadio revealed a shocking fact: The town might have been saved, if the Forest Service had been able to act on its own wildfire predictions from two decades earlier. Unearthing the story through FOIA requests, interviews, and painstaking analysis of forest management databases, Rodd showed flawed and misleading record keeping, regulatory delays, a lack of resources, and poor planning kept the agency from implementing a project that could have saved 400 homes. His compelling and vivid audio documentary prompted a bipartisan group of state Congress members to demand answers from the Forest Service.

Professional Journalist – TV/Video

ABC10 Reporter Andie Judson

On the heels of a previous unsettling exposé, Andie Judson has now uncovered even more shocking practices in the state’s $12 billion dollar conservatorship system. In ABC10’s investigation “The Price of Care: Taken by the State,” Judson and her team exposed how California’s Department of Disability Services allows gross civil liberties abuses and even separates families. Her tenacious and compassionate reporting shows that facilities conserving people with developmental disabilities have gone unmonitored, that staff evaluating conservatorships are grossly underpaid, and how individuals under an inappropriate type of conservatorship can have their rights stripped completely. Diving deep into court and government records, Judson and ABC10 hold an incredibly powerful state agency to account. As a result of her reporting, the department is under intense scrutiny and has changed some of its policies. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a conservatorship reform bill into law after the story aired. 

Nonprofit (Two Honorees)

The American Friends Service Committee

With its detailed and thorough report “Equipped for War,” the American Friends Services Committee showed that law enforcement agencies in towns and cities across California have amassed arsenals that include military-grade weapons. A research team led by John Lindsay-Poland and ​​Jennifer Tu filed more than 300 public records requests, revealing the funding for, and acquisition of, military equipment at 150 departments. Since the 2012 drawdown of the US War in Afghanistan and Iraq, the researchers found, the Department of Defense has made surplus military equipment available to local law enforcement, for no more than the cost of transporting it. The organization also highlighted three recent state laws that give citizens expanded access to information about local police departments’ weapons acquisition and includes a toolkit for citizens and activists to apply them. The report also shows how the equipment has been used, namely in routine stops and arrests, and against protesters like those participating in Occupy Oakland and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Transgender Law Center

When Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender asylum-seeker, died in federal custody, the Transgender Law Center sought answers. The center submitted records requests to U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The agencies responded with silence, then stonewalling. Only after the Transgender Law Center sued did the government begin to comply with its obligations to supply records. A federal district court ruled the agencies had failed to timely respond to the records requests. But the decision also favored the agencies in every other aspect of the case — saying that the departments had conducted an adequate search, appropriately applied exemptions, and explained why certain documents were withheld. The Transgender Law Center appealed, and won. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision took the district court to task for letting the agencies off the hook. The court also clarified the burden of proof, saying that agencies must demonstrate the adequacy of their search “beyond material doubt,” an accountability and transparency victory. 

Public Official (Two Honorees)

Oakland School Board President Mike Hutchinson

When Oakland School Board member Mike Hutchinson posted a list of schools facing closure on social media, officials were not pleased. He made the post several days before district officials had intended to make it public, sparking a public outcry. But Hutchinson stood by his decision. “I didn’t leak anything, this wasn’t privileged or confidential information, what I did was my job by reporting out to my constituents and the community information that I received about their schools being under threat for closure,” Hutchinson said at the time. Releasing the list gave parents and teachers more time to prepare to fight the closures, a fight they ultimately won. Though the school board voted to close a number of schools, that decision was overturned in January 2023. Hutchinson is now the board president.

San Francisco Police Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone

It is rare to find a commissioner willing to publicly clash with the person who appointed them, but Max Carter-Oberstone did so. Carter-Oberstone is vice president of the San Francisco Police Commission, appointed in 2022 by Mayor London Breed to serve a four-year term. Breed required some of the dozens of commissioners she appointed to secretly sign undated resignation letters, allowing the mayor to exert pressure on her appointees and how they voted. Carter-Oberstone risked retribution by exposing the practice on the record to the San Francisco Standard. The San Francisco City Attorney’s office deemed the practice indefensible in court, prompting the mayor to publicly agree to discontinue it. Carter-Oberstone revealed the practice in part to buck pressure from the mayor to offer his resignation when his policy stance differed from hers. After his revelation, he continued to serve on the police commission to help pass a new policy banning certain traffic stops in which officers disproportionately targeted people of color.

Legal Counsel

Attorney Abenicio Cisneros

When a company that operates an immigration detention facility refused to produce documents in response to a public records request, Abenicio Cisneros, with his client Anna von Herrmann, challenged the company in court. Von Herrmann had requested documents related to an Inspector General report about, and complaints against, facility staff. The company denied the request, claiming it wasn’t subject to the Public Records Act because of its status as a subcontractor to a city contractor, rather than a public agency or direct contractor. Cisneros and Herrmann argued that state law makes any immigration facility contracting with a government agency subject to the Act, and the Court of Appeal agreed. The decision will ensure facilities that contract with local agencies to detain noncitizens in California cannot contract away their transparency obligations.

Student Journalists (Multiple Honorees)

Theo Baker

When The Stanford Daily’s Theo Baker broke the news that a prestigious Stanford president’s neuroscience research was under review for possible image manipulation, a scandal erupted. But he didn’t stop reporting just because national news outlets had picked up the story. He went on to reveal that one of the members of a special investigating committee formed to probe these allegations had a conflict of interest — a multimillion-dollar stake in the company founded by the president under investigation. Baker also reported that Stanford University knew about and was involved with a fraud case against a different Stanford-affiliated expert, when the university previously claimed it had no knowledge of that case. His work shows a dedication to bringing obscure or hidden information in the public interest to light.

Grace Carroll and Georgia Rosenberg

Students at Stanford University are calling for the termination of a tenured associate professor who, as Stanford Daily reporters Grace Carroll and Georgia Rosenberg revealed, has been involved in three Title IX complaints in a decade. Carroll and Rosenberg conducted extensive interviews and verified the existence of the complaints. They found that university officials had warned the professor about his behavior, and in one instance, determined that he had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. Frustrated students and faculty described the behavior as exploiting power imbalances inherent to the academic system, even if it is not overtly sexual in nature. Following Carroll and Rosenberg’s revelations, student activists are demanding that the university do more to hold professors and advisors to account.

Casey Michie

San Francisco officials knew exactly why heavy rains regularly send sewage-tainted floods into certain neighborhoods, but as student journalist Casey Michie revealed, they have been devastatingly slow to fix it. Michie’s reporting for a collaboration between City College of San Francisco, KQED and the California Humanities Emerging Journalist Fellowship Program illustrated the impact of the overwhelmed sewer system on homes and beloved belongings. Michie pored over hundreds of court documents, studies, and plans to show that San Francisco knew where the pipes needed to be rebuilt, but delayed doing so — an initiative costing hundreds of millions of dollars — by more than a decade due to “budget constraints.” Michie’s thoroughness shone a spotlight on a problem known to plague these neighborhoods since the 1960s.


Todd Hearn

As forest fires roiled California, PG&E lineman and Napa safety lead Todd Hearn watched his 20-year career go up in smoke. He was fired in 2019 after urgently warning his supervisors about the dangers of installing “reclosers,” devices that shoot bursts of electricity to restart power lines that had previously been shut down. The devices are also known as “trip savers” because they spare the company the labor costs of sending a worker to inspect the line before restarting it. Hearn knew that reclosers could spark fires by re-energizing damaged power lines near parched vegetation. Undeterred by his firing, he brought his concerns to PG&E board members and the media. Following widespread news coverage, PG&E was convicted of various felonies related to multiple fires. In 2019, PG&E fully adopted a policy of disabling reclosers during periods of high fire risk. By blowing the whistle on a preventable cause of wildfires, Hearn warned the public and PG&E executives of the perils of corporate cost-cutting and the importance of input from frontline workers.