FAC names free speech award winners–and one loser

The First Amendment Coalition, a California-based non-profit public interest group, has named the 2009 recipients of its awards for service in the cause of free speech, open government and the public’s right to know. In contrast, the Coalition also has presented its “Darkness Award,” given in recognition of conduct that thwarts freedom of speech.

The Bill Farr Award, given jointly with the California Society of Newspaper Editors, goes to Carl Malamud, whose campaigns to put government information into the public domain have resulted in the EDGAR database of SEC filings, free and easily accessible copies of California criminal, building and plumbing codes, federal court filings and more.

The award is named after a reporter in Los Angeles who used confidential information to write revealing stories about the murderous Charles Manson cult. Because he refused a judge’s orders to name his sources, Farr spent 46 days in the county jail in 1972 and 1973.

Also to be presented Saturday, Oct. 24, during the Coalition’s annual Free Speech and Open Government conference at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, are four “Beacon awards”:

— Robina Suwol, executive director of California Safe Schools, for use of public records to inform her unswerving campaign to protect school children from environmental dangers.

— State Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, for a broad array of legislation in support of government transparency and the rights of student journalists and their advisers.

— Austin Heap of San Francisco, for use of technology to enable uncensored use of the Internet by Iranians to protest the country’s disputed presidential elections.

— Matt Lait and Scott Glover of the Los Angeles Times, for dogged pursuit of a story showing that a man had been imprisoned for 26 years on faulty evidence.

This year’s Darkness Award went to Rod King and Fallbrook High School for suppression of two stories produced by the Tomahawk, the school’s student newspaper. The stories ultimately were published many months later and only days after attorneys for the students filed legal actions to undo the prior restraint.

The full citations for the awards follow:

Carl Malamud

Government information wants to be free. Carl Malamud, a technologist, author, and public domain advocate, has made a career of liberating government information.

An early target was the mass of data about public companies filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In the 1990s this information was available to the public in theory, but in practice it was barely usable. So Malamud created his own free, searchable database of SEC filings. It became hugely popular; even the SEC’s own lawyers and analysts used it. One day Malamud announced that his site would shut down in 60 days, and he told users how to complain to the SEC about their imminent loss of free, user-friendly access to SEC data. The public outcry was so loud that the SEC scrambled to set up its own site, which we know as EDGAR, one of the best free government data resources in the world.

Since then Malamud has had success after success liberating information that the people have paid for, but that governments at all levels, committed to the idea that information is power, want to control. These include the videotapes of Congressional committee hearings; the massive output of the Government Printing Office; the criminal, building, and plumbing codes of California and other states; state and federal court decisions going back 100 years; the court pleadings and filings assembled on the federal judiciary’s PACER system, and more.

Malamud can’t be with us today, but for a good reason: He had prior commitments to go to Oregon where he is leading a battle to force the state Attorney General to provide free, public access to a an authoritative legal guide, written by his office, that explains to the public how to comply with the laws. The particular laws in question? Oregon’s open-government laws!

For extraordinary achievement, over many years, in liberating legal and other government information, and with best wishes for many more open-government campaigns, the First Amendment Coalition presents to Carl Malamud the 2009 Bill Farr Award.

Robina Suwol

Robina Suwol’s unswerving interest in the environmental safety of California’s school children was prompted a decade ago as she watched her sons and a group of other students walk to class near a worker wearing a hazmat suit.

As the children passed through a cloud of the pesticide Princep, Suwol resolved to act.

Armed with the ability to organize other parents, the power of the Public Records Act and strong dedication, Suwol began her campaign to reduce pesticide danger on school grounds.

As executive director of California Safe Schools, Suwol has led the effort to create “integrated pest management” policies for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the state of California.

The winner of numerous awards from civic and environmental groups, Suwol today adds one more: a Beacon award from the First Amendment Coalition.

Leland Yee

As the right to know is challenged on all fronts, the public and press need allies in government more than ever. In California, State Sen. Leland Yee has been a consistent advocate for transparency and for upholding the rights of student journalists and their advisers.

As a senator, Yee has authored legislation to make outside audits of state and local agencies available to the public, to require UC Regents to vote in open session on executive pay packages, and to protect high school and college journalism advisers from retaliation by administrators for defending students’ free speech rights. In 2006, while a member of the Assembly, he sponsored a bill that prohibits prior restraint and other censorship of college press.

Against great political pressure from the police lobby, Yee cast a yes vote on legislation that would have restored public access to law enforcement discipline records and hearings.

Yee’s support of scholastic journalists and the public’s right to know has earned him a First Amendment Coalition Beacon Award.

Austin Heap

In the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Iran and to their keyboards. They faced not only the risk of challenging the outcome of an election they considered fraudulent, but grave personal risk as the state sought to shut down their lines of communication and punish them for speaking out.

Austin Heap, a San Francisco IT director, resolved to fight technology with technology.

“I believe in free information,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And I especially have no room for a tyrannical regime shutting up a whole population.”

Thus was born the Haystack, a computer program designed to break through the Iranian Internet filters and at the same time protect the identities of the users. Protesters now could spread their message free of censorship and retribution by authorities.

For his contribution to freedom of speech and the democratic process, the First Amendment Coalition is proud to bestow a Beacon Award on Austin Heap.

Matt Lait and Scott Glover

Twenty-six years ago Bruce Lisker went to prison for stabbing his 66-year-old mother to death. When police arrived at her Sherman Oaks home, Lisker was there – bloodied and high on methamphetamine. He had a history of drug abuse and fighting with his mother.

The evidence piled high, but some things didn’t quite add up.

For seven months, Los Angeles Times reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover pieced through the case.

“Lait and Glover’s investigation involved painstaking analysis of thousands of pages of court transcripts and other public documents, as well as a major shoe-leather component,” Times Deputy California Editor Steve Clow said. “Twice visiting the scene of the murder – and granted access to the site by the homeowner – they conducted re-creations that undermined a key element of the prosecution’s case: that Lisker could not have seen his mother’s body in the house, as he claimed.”

In 2005 a U.S. District judge, paralleling the findings from Lait and Glover’s investigation, ruled that Lisker was falsely convicted. In September, a month after the conviction was overturned, the District Attorney’s Office declared that it would not retry him.

For their dogged pursuit of the truth, the First Amendment Coalition proudly presents a Beacon award to Matt Lait and Scott Glover.

Rod King and Fallbrook High School

Few acts are more offensive to free speech than a prior restraint — government suppression of ideas and information before they see the light of day. The principle is fundamental at all levels, from the student press to the nation’s largest news-gathering organizations.

Fallbrook High School Principal Rod King blocked publication of the student newspaper, the Tomahawk, because of objections to the content of two articles: an editorial critical of “abstinence-only” sex education, and a news article about the departure of the district’s school superintendent.

The administration’s argument that it acted out of necessity, and respects students’ First Amendment freedoms, rings hollow. The editorial might have been embarrassing, but it contained nothing even remotely libelous or actionable. Any problems with the news article could have been, and should have been, handled with minor editing, not suppression of the entire article. And although the articles were finally published, that was more than ten months after they had been spiked–and, we note, just days after the ACLU and private attorneys filed a legal motion to force the school to resume publication.

Public school administrators can always find fault with the content of student newspapers. High school journalism is rarely a model of clarity and thorough reporting. But students, in order to learn how to be journalists, must be given the freedom, independence–and responsibility–to function as journalists. School administrators’ authority to interfere in the editorial process and insist on changes in content is narrowly circumscribed under California law and the First Amendment. In our opinion, those limits were seriously breached in this case.

For behavior hostile to scholastic journalism and for creating the lesson that First Amendment principles are more theory than reality, Rod King and Fallbrook High School are richly deserving of the First Amendment Coalition’s Darkness Award.

The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization with offices in San Rafael, CA, is committed to defending and expanding free speech and open-government rights at the national, state and local level. The Coalition’s conference in LA this Saturday, Oct. 24, is produced and sponsored jointly with the Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute of Southwestern Law School, which is the venue for the event.

More information about the event, which is free (with advance registration online) and open to the public, is available at the Coalition’s website: firstamendmentcoalition.org
First Amendment Coalition
Contact: Peter Scheer, executive director
(415) 460-5060