SPJ NORCAL HONORS TRANSPARENCY CHAMPIONS IN JAMES MADISON FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AWARDS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE MARCH 23, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO – The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists announces its 39th 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 Karl Olson for his career achievement, San Jose State University swimming coach Sage Hopkins for whistleblowing against a trainer who sexually assaulted students, former adviser to Mountain View High School student newspaper Carla Gomez for defending students’ press rights, and others who did excellent work furthering the public’s right to know in 2023.

To honor these First Amendment stalwarts, purchase tickets to the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards dinner here.

Norwin S. Yoffie  Career Achievement Award

Karl Olson

Attorney Karl Olson has dedicated his more than four decades of law practice to advocating for First Amendment rights and government transparency, and to advising and protecting journalists. His work has had a powerful impact on the media law landscape in California and throughout the nation and will benefit journalists and the public they serve for many years to come.

He represented the news media in and argued two of the most important Public Records Act cases in recent memory in the California Supreme Court: International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 319 and City of San Jose v. Superior Court (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608. In International Federation, the court held that the public has a right of access to the salaries of named public employees, and made favorable rulings on many broader legal questions along the way. In City of San Jose, it held that records are not automatically inaccessible to the public under the Public Records Act if they are stored on officials’ personal accounts and devices, preventing a loophole in California’s public records access laws that bad actors could have exploited to arbitrarily conceal public business. Olson also recently successfully represented San José Spotlight in San José Spotlight and First Amendment Coalition v. City of San Jose, which enforced the Supreme Court’s earlier City of San Jose ruling.

He represented the news media in countless other significant cases in state and federal courts throughout the nation.  For example, he represented the San Francisco Chronicle in Carver v. Bonds (2005) 135 Cal.App.4th 328, a libel case brought by a podiatrist who claimed to have treated prominent athletes; The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento County Employees Retirement System v. Superior Court (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th  440 (2011)  a Public Records Act case vindicating the public’s right of access to named public employees’ pension amounts; and the Recorder in Recorder v. Commission on Judicial Performance (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 258, a case ensuring public access to commissioners’ votes. He represented the L.A. Times in California ex rel. Lockyer v. Safeway, Inc. (C.D. Cal. 2005) 355 F.Supp.2d 1111, a case that effectuated and emphasized in powerful language the First Amendment right of access to judicial records and proceedings. He represented the New Yorker in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine , a libel case that confirmed substantially true statements cannot give rise to defamation liability under the First Amendment. He represented news organizations and advocates as amici curiae (“friends of the court”) in countless other cases that helped establish media and First Amendment law rules that continue to benefit journalists, including Briggs v. Eden Council for Hope & Opportunity (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1106, Equilon Enterprises v. Consumer Cause, Inc. (2002) 29 Cal.4th 53, Navellier v. Sletten (2007) 29 Cal.4th 82, Varian Medical Systems, Inc. v. Delfino (2005) 35 Cal.4th 180; State Department of Public Health v. Superior Court (2015) 60 Cal.4th 940, Commission on Peace Officer Standards & Training v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 278, L.A. County Board of Supervisors v. Superior Court (2016) 2 Cal.5th 282, and BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 742.  And, in recent years, he has continued to represent newspapers and advocates in cases involving First Amendment rights and access to public records and proceedings, fending off high-profile defamation lawsuits and securing records that led to news stories on matters of great public concern. Olson has also long been, and remains, a trusted adviser to journalists throughout California on newsgathering and content matters.

Olson has also represented and protected government whistleblowers, including Joanne Hoeper, a former chief trial deputy at the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office whom SPJ NorCal previously honored with her own James Madison Award, in Hoeper v. City and County of San Francisco (2020) Case Nos. A151824, A152204, A152539, at trial and in the California Court of Appeal.

Olson began his professional life as a reporter and newspaper editor. After graduating from U.C. Law San Francisco (formerly U.C. Hastings) in 1982, he worked as a research attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin, as an associate at Morrison & Foerster, and as an associate, and then a partner at Cooper, White & Cooper. He then founded Levy, Ram, & Olson, Ram & Olson, and Ram, Olson, Cereghino, & Kopczynski. He is now a partner at Cannata O’Toole & Olson, where he continues to work with journalists and the news media. He is also a longtime member of the First Amendment Coalition Board of Directors.

Olson was one of the original 11 members appointed to San Francisco’s open-government watchdog panel, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, in 1994.

He continues to advocate for government transparency in opinion pieces, as well as in his work as a lawyer – for example, Karl Olson, Trump is an enemy of the press. California Democrats, like Newsom, may be no better (The Sacramento Bee March 12, 2024), available at https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/article286138646.html.

Olson won SPJ NorCal’s James Madison Freedom of Information Award for Legal Counsel in 2005 and 2018, among many other awards, in part for his work on City of San Jose and International Federation

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.

Beverly Kees Educator Award

Carla Gomez, former adviser to Mountain View High School student newspaper The Oracle

This award is in memory of the late Beverly Kees, who taught journalism at San Francisco State University and served as SPJ NorCal president.

Carla Gomez, a longtime teacher at Mountain View High School in Santa Clara County, trained to be the sole adviser for the campus newspaper before taking that position in fall 2022.  In spring 2023, she found herself in a dispute with the school’s new principal, who did not like a 2,800-word article that The Oracle published on sexual harassment by students.

The principal removed Gomez as adviser and cut the Introduction to Journalism class that she had been teaching.

Gomez is suing the school district and the principal with assistance of counsel for violating California’s student press freedom laws (Education Code Section 48907), which protect advisers from retaliation for refusing to censor their students.

According to the lawsuit, the principal stated that the journalism adviser role would go to someone with a certificate in Career and Technical Education, which Gomez did not have. The lawsuit says the state of California does not require journalism advisers to have a CTE certificate.

Student Journalism Award 

Hanna Olson and Hayes Duenow, Mountain View High School student newspaper The Oracle

The students are plaintiffs with Gomez in the lawsuit over issues that arose in spring 2023 as they prepared an article for the school newspaper on sexual harassment by students on campus. Olson is a senior and one of the editors at the Oracle. Duenow is now a college freshman.  

The students said in their lawsuit that the principal “used her authority and position to exert enormous and unlawful pressure on the student journalists to censor the article.”

The students are suing under Education Code Section 48907, which says schools may not censor a student publication unless it contains material that is obscene or libelous, or poses a “substantial disruption” to school operations.

Professional Journalists – Print/Digital (Larger Outlet)

Julia Love and Davey Alba, Bloomberg News

Through public records requests and meticulous reporting, Julia Love and Davey Alba of Bloomberg News’s San Francisco office detailed how law enforcement officials across the country use search warrants to obtain innocent Google users’ search history and location information in an effort to combat crime. In their groundbreaking story, “Google User Data Has Become a Favorite Police Shortcut,” the pair highlight how police routinely use search warrants to obtain Google-search information from every user near a crime scene. Love and Alba reported on how Google uses WiFi-networks, cell-phone towers and other metrics to track a user’s location to “within several feet,” and that a significant portion of the data turned over to police includes users not suspected of a crime. Additionally, Love and Alba highlight how Google received more than 60,000 search warrants nationally in 2022 and how many of the search warrants sent to Google for user data were for low-level crimes such as theft and vandalism. Alba and Love’s reporting resulted in Google changing its policy so the company no longer tracks users’ location history, which cut off Google’s ability to respond to police warrants for user data near crime locations.

Professional Journalist(s) – Print/Digital (Smaller Outlet)

Thadeus Greenson, North Coast Journal

Through meticulous reporting and savvy use of the Public Records Act, the North Coast Journal’s Thadeus Greenson exposed a glaring lack of accountability at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. “The Soeth Files” revealed how a single deputy, Maxwell Soeth, repeatedly lied about his conduct following a string of violent interactions that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $1 million in legal settlements and laid bare how Soeth’s superiors allowed him to continue reporting for duty — even after an internal investigation found his use of force “unreasonable” and “not justified.” Greenson piecedthe story together with thousands of pages of public records to corroborate witness accounts. The impact of this dogged reporting continues to reverberate throughout Humboldt County after the district attorney placed Soeth on the “Brady List,” prompting cases in which he was a key witness to be pled down or dismissed.

Professional Journalist – Radio/Audio

Chris Egusa

Chris Egusa’s audio series investigating problems with California’s developmental disability group homes uncovered systemic deficiencies in oversight of the private equity owners who profited from the questionable care they provided to the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Egusa’s three-part series, originally broadcast on Radio KALW, relied on public records requests with the California Department of Developmental Services, the Department of Social Services and the  State Auditor.

News Media (Larger Outlet)

Jason Fagone and Daniel Lempres, San Francisco Chronicle  

Jason Fagone and Daniel Lempres, along with colleagues from the SF Chronicle and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, spent a year investigating unintended consequences of the California Voting Rights Act. The CVRA requires district-based elections in order to empower voters from minority neighborhoods. But the CVRA incentivizes legal action without tracking outcomes. After filing 1,500 public records requests, analyzing 50,000 pages of documents and interviewing 1,000 local public officials who switched to district-based elections under legal pressure, they published a richly detailed, three-part series explaining how lawyers have collected $15 million by blanketing cities, school boards and other agencies with letters threatening lawsuits unless they switch to district-based elections, and how most agencies choose to pay $30,000 in legal fees and reform their elections at triple that cost, even if it compromises their services. This one-size-fits-all approach has resulted in blocking housing developments; more uncontested and canceled elections; polarizing candidates prevailing; and Christian conservatives taking over school boards so they can censor LGBTQ and racial topics. Moreover, with half of the city councils sampled, switching to district elections resulted in boards with unchanged demographics – or increased whiteness. Fagone and Lempres have shown that when carelessly imposed on small or well-integrated communities, district elections can undermine the intent of the CVRA.

News Media (Smaller Outlet)

San José Spotlight

San José Spotlight —  a non-profit newsroom covering politics and business in the South Bay — wins a James Madison Award for its initiation and coverage of, participation in and victory in a major Public Records Act lawsuit against the city of San Jose and its former Mayor Sam Liccardo. Over three years, the newsroom’s reporters revealed Liccardo’s attempts to skirt public records laws by using personal email to conduct city business. The Spotlight explained to readers why this mattered and held Liccardo accountable in court. The civil case they brought alongside the First Amendment Coalition resulted in numerous disclosures of records and a hard-won declaratory judgment against the former mayor and the city for failing to prove that they adequately searched for records in response to the Spotlight’s requests. The case led to the introduction of state legislation requiring officials to “use or copy” a government account when conducting public business to ensure a record exists, bolstering transparency.

Documentary Filmmaker

Rick Goldsmith

Oakland filmmaker Rick Goldsmith’s lifelong love affair with journalism and newspapers has culminated in his latest project “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink.” The film takes a crititcal look at Alden Global Capital, the secretive hedge fund that has bought and downsized most newspapers in the Bay Area and scores of newspapers elsewhere across the country while becoming the second-largest owner of newspapers in the country. Two of Goldsmith’s prior documentaries — celebrating famed investigative reporter George Seldes and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg — were nominated for Academy Awards.

Public Official

Janani Ramachandran, Oakland city councilwoman

When it comes to public records, public officials usually make the news for either writing the laws or breaking them. SPJ NorCal this year honors one who instead used the laws to serve the public — and has paid a price. Janani Ramachandran is a former public interest attorney and currently the City Council member for Oakland’s District 4. Dissatisfied with city staff’s responses to her inquiries, last year she filed public records requests in order to unearth the state of Oakland’s staffing crisis, expose the dire state of basic public safety services, and hold city leaders accountable for their failed and harmful policies — making her apparently the first in the city’s history to take such action. One result has been to drastically reduce the number of 911 dispatcher job slots. Another result, she says, is that she’s not invited to public events that other city council members attend and has faced retaliation from city leaders, including half the council and even the mayor, who ironically represented the same district but now denies all requests to meet.

Legal Counsel

David Loy, First Amendment Coalition

Attorney David Loy wins a James Madison Award in the Legal Counsel category for his tireless work supporting open access in 2023.  Since taking the helm as the First Amendment Coalition’s legal director, Loy has achieved excellent results in numerous public records cases.

Loy represented FAC in litigation to enforce California Public Records Act requests targeted at uncovering the extent to which the City of San José’s then-Mayor, Sam Liccardo, was doing public business on personal devices or accounts.  In 2023, in tandem with Karl Olson of Cannata O’Toole & Olson LLP representing co-petitioner San José Spotlight, Loy and his team won a declaratory judgment that the city and Liccardo failed to conduct an adequate search of Liccardo’s private email and text message accounts, as well as an order compelling disclosure of numerous records withheld by the city.  The case was a noteworthy follow-up to City of San Jose v. Superior Court, 2 Cal. 5th 608 (2017), which established that when public employees use personal accounts to communicate about public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure.

Earlier in 2023, Loy successfully led a coordinated effort to defeat Mendocino County’s bid to charge exorbitant fees to search for and review public records.  To cite just one example, under its 2022 fee ordinance, Mendocino demanded over $76,000 from one local journalist to respond to a pair of public records requests.  With FAC’s team, especially Advocacy Director Ginny LaRoe, Loy gathered a coalition to fight the Mendocino ordinance in court, including FAC, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, The Mendocino Voice, SPJ NorCal and Willits Environmental Center.  Faced with imminent litigation, Mendocino rescinded its Ordinance.

Loy’s open records advocacy also contributed to a favorable published opinion in First Amendment Coalition v. Superior Court (Bonta) (2023) 98 Cal.App.5th 593.  Together with attorney Michael Risher representing FAC and Tom Burke and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP representing KQED, Loy and his team stopped the California Attorney General and Department of Justice from seriously undermining state Senate Bill 1421 by withholding officer-related records under a law that protects information derived from the exercise of executive subpoena power.  Instead, the appellate court held this law posed a direct conflict with Penal Code section 832.7(b) and therefore could not justify nondisclosure.

As a parting shot, in December 2023, Loy submitted an amicus letter on behalf of FAC and others in support of the successful petition for review in City of Gilroy v. Superior Court (Law Foundation of Silicon Valley), No. S282937.  In this case, the California Supreme Court will consider a court’s power to rule on violations of the California Public Records Act other than withholding specific records and the extent of public entities’ obligation to preserve records.

Legal Counsel

Michael Risher 

Over his 20-plus years as a lawyer, Risherl has been a consistent and effective advocate for government transparency, civil rights and civil liberties. This year, he was instrumental in securing citable precedent in California appellate courts furthering the right to access public records in two notable instances involving police misconduct.  

In First Amendment Coalition v. Superior Court (Bonta) (2023) 98 Cal.App.5th 593, Risher represented FAC alongside Thomas Burke representing KQED to confirm that officer-related records obtained and possessed by the state Department of Justice by subpoena are disclosable under state Senate Bill 1421, despite not originating in that department.

BondGraham v. Superior Court stemmed from the widespread and alarming investigation of police officers who had sex with a teenage abuse victim.  In that case, Risher, along with lawyers Sam Ferguson, Tyler Meade, and Michael Reiser, represented journalists Darwin BondGraham (a member of SPJ NorCal’s FOI Committee) and Ali Winston in challenging certain key redactions that the city of Oakland made to an internal affairs investigation report on a scandal that the city was forced to produce at the trial court level.  The lawyers and journalists secured an appellate court decision that the redactions, including those made to the report’s general policy and training recommendations, screenshots of the victim’s social media and names of officers who witnessed the misconduct, were improper under SB 1421.

Over the years, Risher has represented many James Madison Award recipients, including the First Amendment Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Oakland Privacy.

Source/Whistleblower

Sage Hopkins

Sage Hopkins was coach — and guardian — of the San Jose State University women’s swimming and diving program. In 2009, 17 swimmers confided that SJSU’s sports medicine director had fondled them sexually while treating injuries. Hopkins submitted a dossier of these allegations but SJSU cleared the offender. Despite steering swimmers away from sports medicine, new complaints surfaced. In 2018, he submitted a 300-page dossier to SJSU’s Title IX office. Inexplicably, that report disappeared. So, in 2019, he contacted the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That triggered investigations by the California State University system and the FBI. In reprisal, SJSU administrators ordered his supervisor, Steve O’Brien, to reprimand Hopkins. O’Brien refused and was fired. (For protecting whistleblowers, O’Brien received a James Madison Freedom of Information Award in 2021). Press coverage of the scandal forced SJSU’s president and athletic director to step down. Hopkins’s claims were finally validated in 2023 when Scott Shaw received a two-year federal prison sentence for violating athlete’s rights, and SJSU paid $4.9 million to 28 victims. The settlement for Hopkins’s retaliation lawsuit included a public apology from SJSU for ignoring his “courageous advocacy.” One of his swimmers asserted, “He was one of the only adults who stood up for us.”

Source/Whistleblower

Gordon Wolfe

For shedding light on a horrendous  situation at a public institution,  the dangers his colleagues faced and speaking publicly about the matter, a James Madison Whistleblower Award goes to Chico State University Prof. Gordon Wolfe.

In summer 2020,  another Chico State professor began a sexual affair with a student that included trysts in the professor’s office that colleagues could hear through the walls. After two professors in adjoining offices complained, a Title IX investigation began. It soon became clear that the subject of the investigation was pushing back against the complainants.

When Wolfe heard of this, he came to  the aid of his co-workers. He examined Superior Court records and found the professor’s estranged wife had said in a court affidavit that the professor had threatened to kill the complainants and that gun-store receipts showed he had stocked up on ammunition.

Wolfe turned the information over to the university, which suspended the professor briefly but allowed him to return to work over the objections of the campus police chief. The professor also received the proverbial slap on the wrist for the affair with the student and was named the university’s outstanding professor of the 2020-21 academic year. But he also soon allegedly again threatened gun violence on campus, created a toxic work environment  and continued to retaliate against the professors who reported his affair.

When a reporter began looking into the case, Wolfe went on the record, enabling a story that roiled the Chico State campus, led to a judge issuing a workplace violence restraining order barring the professor from the university for three years, and a year-long investigation that resulted in findings of dishonesty, sexual harassment and retaliation.

Facing termination, the professor resigned this year and was banned for life from working in the California State University system.

Citizen

Hdizz/Hazel Williams 

Homelessness activist Hazel Wiliams has filed countless public record requests, taken the city of San Francisco to task before the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, worked with custodians of records and shared all of her findings with reporters to shine a light on city practices obscured from public view. Williams’s records work provided key evidence in the federal lawsuit against San Francisco that, while the Freedom of Information Committee cannot take a position on it, has undoubtedly had a significant impact: In 2023, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s injunction limiting the city’s authority to clear encampments without providing enough shelter for those displaced. Her records work has also prompted media coverage on issues like street furnishings violating disability access guidelines, the revocation of internet access for homeless people as a strategy to encourage them to move elsewhere, and how the city of San Francisco collaborated with residents and a private Marin-based company to circumvent an injunction against encampment clearings. In addition to working with news media, Williams has increased public access to records and court proceedings through her blog and posts on the social media platform X

Truth to Power: Golden Sledgehammer

Emilie Raguso 

Emilie Raguso of the Berkeley Scanner stood up publicly against an attack on press freedom when Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price’s staffers turned her away from a news conference. Raguso covered the incident on her news site, wrote op-eds and spoke out in regional media, and enlisted help from local and national press freedom groups to challenge the office’s denial of press access. Raguso bravely served the public and Price’s office a practical and important lesson in the First Amendment, and was ultimately welcomed to subsequent press events.

The Golden Sledgehammer is named for bravery in the face of a brutish attack on its first awardee. San Francisco freelancer Bryan Carmody successfully challenged an unlawful raid on his home, office and phones by San Francisco police wielding a sledgehammer and pickax, an attack on press freedom and California’s shield law upholding the right of journalists to keep source identities and unpublished/unaired materials private.

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 Shaila Nathu and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Members

Laura Wenus

Derek Kerr

Richard Knee

Thomas Peele

Randy Lyman

Candice Nguyen

Lauren Smiley

Christine Peek

Grace Marion

Aaron R. Field

Anna Tong

Karl Mondon

Larry Sokoloff

Annelise Finney

Darwin BondGraham

Matt Drange

Freddy Brewster