MuckRock, The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the North Coast Journal Honored with FAC’s Free Speech and Open Government Award


SAN RAFAEL — The First Amendment Coalition is pleased to announce the winners of its 2023 Free Speech and Open Government Award: Thadeus Greenson of the North Coast Journal; Al-Amyn Sumar and David McCabe of The New York Times and Leah Nylen of Bloomberg; and nonprofit, collaborative news platform MuckRock.

Following a single tip, Thadeus Greenson of the North Coast Journal obtained, through several public records requests, more than 2,000 pages of internal police reports and court filings to write “The Soeth Files,” which details years of “questionable decisions and uses of force” by law enforcement officer Maxwell Soeth. Soeth was involved in two shootings, one deadly, an incident where he punched his own son in the face, and finally one where he ordered his police dog to bite a suspect who was being restrained by officers during a mental health crisis. The Journal details at great length how Soeth’s accounts to internal investigators diverged from first-hand accounts, documentary evidence, and video — yet even when these inconsistencies were revealed, he never faced punishment for them. Greenson persuasively demonstrates that the system to hold law enforcement officers accountable failed to do so in Soeth’s case. Even in the face of mountains of evidence that Soeth is a danger to the public and is not fit for duty, he remains on patrol in Humboldt County.

Following the Journal’s reporting, all by one reporter from a small four-person news staff, Soeth was reportedly put on the Brady List within the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office, and cases in which he was a principal witness have been dismissed or plead out. 

Tackling a diversity of issues that include the environment, public health, and medical research, MuckRock is honored for its innovative data investigation collaborations with newsrooms large and small across the country, achieving significant change for communities. These projects tackled issues such as loophole in the federal Clean Air Act that has allowed more than 70 local county regulators to claim the air is cleaner than it actually is; the emission of cancerous pollutants by a coal tar plant that poisoned the air in a Chicago suburb; and an investigation into billions of federal dollars lost to long COVID research that has yielded few results.

One example of how this collaborative approach yielded real results: for the “Atomic Fallout” collaboration, reporters from MuckRock, the Missouri Independent, and Associated Press combed through 75 years’ worth of recently declassified government documents that show the federal government ignored the health risks to communities surrounding St. Louis when it dumped toxic, radioactive waste there. The reporting triggered an ongoing investigation by the Missouri Attorney General, and led to bipartisan congressional support to expand federal compensation to families of Americans who became ill due to radiation exposure. Missouri legislators are also looking to increase state compensation funds for victims’ families.

Google tried to keep much of the United States v. Google trial out of the public eye by refusing to release the exhibits it used in court and making successful requests to close the courtroom during witness testimony. The Justice Department largely acquiesced to the closure requests and also ignored most of the press’s requests for its trial exhibits. The dogged advocacy of Al-Amyn Sumar and David McCabe of The New York Times and Leah Nylen of Bloomberg pried open the courtroom doors and gave the public and press greater access to one of the most consequential antitrust trials in recent history.

On one day of the 10-week trial, Nylen — a journalist, not a lawyer — stood up in court to object after the Justice Department, in response to complaints from Google, said it would remove already-public trial exhibits from its website. Nylen, one of only two reporters left in the courtroom that day, objected and asked that Bloomberg have an opportunity to have a lawyer present to argue for continued public access. Nylen’s objection drew public attention to the excessive secrecy in the trial — but that secrecy continued, so New York Times reporter David McCabe, who was part of the outlet’s team covering the trial, asked Times lawyer Al-Amyn Sumar to intervene. Sumar, representing The Times and supported by other outlets, filed an access motion in the case. Following The Times’s motion, the trial opened up significantly, with trial exhibits promptly released to the public and nearly all other testimony presented in open court.

“We often take for granted the painstaking work that journalists do every day to give us the information we need to hold our government accountable,” said David Snyder, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Thanks to the work of these individuals and organizations, the public is better informed, and our democracy is stronger.

“I was also thrilled to see student journalists submit an entry this year. Reviewing excellent work by these young reporters gives me confidence that the fourth estate is in good hands with the next generation. We hope to see more submissions from students in the coming years.“

The 2023 honorees were selected by the FAC Awards Committee, composed of FAC board members Scott Lindlaw and Katherine Rowlands and Board of Special Advisors members Jim Newton and Dick Rogers, along with Snyder. 

The First Amendment Coalition’s annual Free Speech and Open Government Award recognizes outstanding contributions to the advancement of free expression or the people’s right to know about their government.