The First Amendment Coalition is an award-winning, nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to advancing free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in civic affairs.
Our activities include:
• free one-on-one legal consultations for journalists, activists, academics and ordinary individuals frustrated in the exercise of their First Amendment rights;
• a uniquely successful program of strategic litigation to enhance First Amendment rights for the largest number of citizens;
• educational and informational programs offered online, in books, and in conferences;
• legislative oversight of bills affecting access to government; and
• public advocacy through writings of Op-Eds and public speaking.
The mission of the First Amendment Coalition is to protect and promote freedom of expression and the people’s right to know. The Coalition is a non-profit, nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization serving the public, public servants, and the media in all its forms. Its constituency reflects an increasingly diverse society. The Coalition is committed to the principle that government is accountable to the people, and strives through education, public advocacy, litigation, and other efforts to prevent unnecessary government secrecy and to resist censorship of all kinds. (Board of Directors, August 18, 2008)
- Legal Hotline
- Newsletter, Op-Ed Columns
- Legal Handbook
- Educational Programs
- New Initiatives
- Financial Support
- Board of Directors
The Coalition’s Legal Hotline service provides free one-on-one legal consultations to journalists, bloggers, ethnic media, community activists and ordinary citizens experiencing frustration and government resistance in the exercise of their free speech and open-government rights. The quality of legal information, given by top media lawyers under contract with the Coalition, is extremely high.
The Coalition acts locally, statewide and nationally. The Coalition co-authored Proposition 59, the Sunshine Amendment to the California constitution enacted by voters in 2004, and since then has taken the lead in enforcing this new right, pressuring state agencies to be more transparent in their decision-making. We have pursued an innovative, and highly successful, program of “strategic” litigation: Carefully planned test-case lawsuits calculated to strengthen existing protections, and to create new ones, for free speech and access to government.
Our objective is not to vindicate one person’s rights, but to advance the law in a way that enhances government openness and accountability for the largest number of citizens. Some pending and recent cases:
Coalition v. CALPERS. . . We successfully sued CALPERS, California’s public employee retirement system, to force it to disclose the management fees it pays to venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds in which CALPERS invests. Because of its huge size, CALPERS is the de facto standard-setter for the pension industry nationally. When CALPERS settled our suit, agreeing to most of the fee disclosures we had sought, pension plans across the country followed suit.
Coalition v. Santa Clara County . . . In a landmark case, The Coalition successfully sued Santa Clare County for access to its GIS database of real estate parcels, which the county claims is protected by copyright and federal Homeland Security information controls. A major decision by the Court of Appeal affirmed the public’s right to this valuable digital mapping data created with taxpayer funds. The Court’s path-breaking decision was the first in the country to rule on the crucial Homeland Security issues.
Coalition v. Government of China . . . The Coalition is petitioning the US Trade Representative in Washington to challenge China’s internet censorship before the World Trade Organization. Our novel argument: that China’s censorship regime violates the free trade treaties to which China became subject upon joining the WTO in 2001.
Coalition v. California Legislature . . . The Coalition, together with Maplight.org, successfully sued the California Legislative Counsel for public access to the complete database of state legislative actions. Legislative materials were traditionally offered, but only on a one-bill-at-a-time basis, which effectively precludes analysis of special interest influence. As part of the resolution of this litigation, journalists, bloggers and concerned citizens will soon be able to track the impact of campaign contributions on legislative outcomes.
Coalition v. Schwarzenegger . . . We sued Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to obtain his calendars of meetings and those of his top aides. We argued that a state Supreme Court decision sustaining a denial of access to these records was implicitly overturned by a newly enacted Constitutional amendment sponsored by us and which the governor had championed during the election. Schwarzenegger settled, agreeing to turn over nearly all the calendars. The huge publicity attending this decision created a new political reality in California. Although the law on access to gubernatorial calendars remains unclear, all statewide office holders and many officials at the local and regional level were forced, by political pressure, to disclose their calendars, too.
As a First Amendment organization, we believe that we must exercise our own right of free speech—and do so loudly. We publish a twice-monthly newsletter distributed (by email) to nearly 4,000 supporters. Each newsletter carries an original commentary, on First Amendment issues, written by executive director Peter Scheer. The commentaries are republished regularly on the Op-Ed pages of major newspapers and on popular online news sites (including Huffington Post and Slate).
We publish the Right to Know: A Guide to Public Access and Media Law, a comprehensive handbook on Freedom of Information, First Amendment and news-gathering law for citizens and journalists. Completely rewritten and reissued in 2008, the Right to Know is the most authoritative and current legal primer of its kind.
The Coalition conducts annual conferences to educate the public. Recent speakers have included Arianna Huffington, Jeffrey Toobin, US appeals court judge Alex Kozinski, Daniel Ellsberg, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, Internet journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor, and many more. Conferences are produced with the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley; the USC Annenberg School of Communication; Cal-State Fullerton; and the Biederman Media Law Institute, Southwestern Law School.
As a nonprofit, we do not lobby the California Legislature. However, we do engage in oversight of the legislative process, working with legislators and committee staffs, and providing testimony in support of First Amendment-friendly bills, and against bills that would turn the clock back. In a major effort, the Coalition authored and sponsored FOI legislation, ultimately put before the voters and enacted in 2004 as “Proposition 59,” to amend the California constitution to include a right to open-government.
The Coalition has been expanding its services and activities to assist journalists and editors associated with ethnic media. Through workshops, conferences and the provision of free legal consultations on freedom of information and related issues, we hope to be of help to this crucial news media segment in the use of legal tools that can bolster their journalistic independence and sophistication.
We receive our funding from foundation grants, individual and corporate contributions, membership dues, portions of attorney’s fee awards in selected cases, and income from a modest endowment fund.
The Coalition’s principal patrons and benefactors have been media consultant (and former newspaper publisher) Rowland (“Reb”) Rebele and his wife, Patricia Rebele. The First Amendment has never had more steadfast and supportive friends than the Rebeles.
The Coalition receives significant institutional support from the McCormick Foundation in Illinois, the CS Fund in California, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Florida and the Central Valley Foundation in California. Major gifts have also been given by Raymond Pryke, Allen McCombs, Susan McClatchy and Mel Opotowsky.
Other supporters include: Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Publishing and the Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register, Press-Enterprise, Davis Wright Tremaine, Sheppard Mullin, and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.
Startup support for the Coalition was provided by the National Society of Professional Journalists and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, among others.
Peter Scheer, The Coalition’s Executive Director since June 2004. A lawyer and journalist, Scheer was editor and publisher of The Recorder, a daily legal newspaper in San Francisco, publisher of Legal Times, a Washington, DC-based weekly on law and lobbying, and CEO of callaw.com and law.com. Scheer practiced appellate law in Washington, DC, both in the U.S. Justice Department and in private practice. He was a partner in the Washington, DC firm of Onek, Klein & Farr, and was general counsel to the National Security Archive. Scheer has argued appellate cases in most of the federal courts of appeal and in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Scheer has received the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award (from the national Sigma Delta Chi Foundation) and the James Madison Freedom of Information Award (from the Society of Professional Journalists). Scheer’s articles on First Amendment issues and related issues have appeared in numerous publications, both print and online, including the Sacramento Bee, Slate.com, Huffington Post, San Jose Mercury News, Salon.com, Orange County Register, San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Scheer received his JD in 1978 from Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the Harvard Law Review. He received his BA at Amherst College, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
Deborah Fruin, The Coalition’s Program Coordinator, joined FAC in 2009. Fruin was previously employed as a community journalist in the Napa Valley. She was one of the founding editors at the launch of The Calistoga Tribune, Features Editor of The Napa Valley, and Editor in Chief of The Weekly Calistogan. In 2008, she edited the blog Poor Us: The Great Depression 2.0
Before moving to Northern California with her family in in 1993, Fruin worked in magazine and book publishing in New York for Conde Nast and the Sterling Lord Literary Agency. Later she worked as a story analyst at Creative Artist’s Agency in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Donal Brown, volunteer reporter and editor, began work for The Coalition in January of 2009. From 1999 to 2009, he was a reporter and editor for the New America Media of San Francisco, previously know as the Pacific News Service. He taught English and journalism for 35 years in California’s public schools, 33 years at Redwood High School in Larkspur. He also taught for three summers at the Andover Summer Session in Massachusetts and was a Fellow in the Bay Area Writing Project.
Among his distinguished former journalism students are Laura McCorkindale, film producer and National High School Journalist of the Year 1984; Eric Schmitt of the New York Times winner of two Pulitzer prizes; Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post and a Pulitzer prize winner in 2008; Mary Anne Ostrom formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, a Pulitzer prize winner in 1989; Christopher Marquis (deceased) of the New York Times; Dan Kurtzman, political satire editor for the New York Times on About. com; Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN; Chris Bull winner of the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship grant; and Dina Temple-Raston of NPR News.
He is a graduate of Stanford University and served two years in the Peace Corps in Nigeria from 1963-65.