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
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.
FAC has an unsurpassed record in advancing government accountability through freedom of speech and government transparency. Over the years, FAC has initiated many lawsuits and other legal actions–an ambitious program of “strategic litigation” designed to enhance legal protections for all citizens (not just a few individual litigants). FAC has also been instrumental in the enactment of major laws concerning access to information and open meetings. Some recent highlights:
- Lane v. Franks, SCOTUS (2014): FAC is preparing its own amicus brief in this US Supreme Court case about first amendment protection for a government employee who lost his job after testifying in court about misconduct committed by his agency.
- FISA Court case, (2013): FAC joins secret FISA Court proceeding in effort to permit Google, Facebook and other tech firms to disclose the extent of NSA’s access to their user data and content.
- Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper SCOTUS (2013): FAC filed its own amicus brief in this US Supreme Court case interpreting a federal immunity statute that uses language similar to that applied in libel suits against news media.
- LA Jail case, (2013): Suit challenging LA Jail’s refusal to disclose visitors to high-profile inmates. Settlement reveals records and changes jail policy to permit disclosure of visitor logs for jailed public officials.
- Apple v. Samsung case,(2013): Intervention in federal circuit court to defend trial court order unsealing Apple and Samsung financial docs in crucial cell phone patent infringement litigation.
- Crews v. Willows School District, (2013): FAC joins public records case to rescue newspaper publisher facing crippling sanctions. Successful appeal voids sanctions, rescues publisher and establishes a high barrier against government agencies seeking legal fees from PRA requesters.
- San Jose email case,(2013): FAC leads amicus effort to contest mayor’s refusal to release emails about San Jose city business that were sent from mayor’s personal email account.
- US Drone Strike Memos, (2014): FOIA suit for public access to Justice Department legal memos analyzing use of lethal force (drone strikes) against suspected al Qaeda operatives who are also US citizens.
- State Bar Data case, (2013): Lawsuit to force California State Bar to release historical data on Bar applicants needed for academic research on affirmative action policies. Unanimous Supreme Court decision affirms FAC “common law” access claim and requires release of anonymous data.
- Auburn Email case,(2012): PRA suit for email about city business that local officials sent using personal email accounts. Successful settlement creates model for preserving email and closing “personal email” loophole.
- Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, (2010): FAC filed its own amicus brief in this seminal first amendment case in the US Supreme Court.
- Snyder v. Phelps, SCOTUS (2010): FAC filed its own amicus brief in this US Supreme Court case involving first amendment limits on laws criminalizing false speech.
- Calabasas document case, (2011): FAC sued the city of Calabasas to compel disclosure of an inspection report on conditions in an unoccupied residential property potentially posing health risks to nearby residents. In a favorable settlement, Calabasas released the disputed report and paid FAC’s legal fees.
- State Legislative data, (2008): Suit against California Legislature for access to legislative database in format permitting meaningful analysis in relation to campaign contributions. Successful outcome is crucial for our co-plaintiff, MapLight.org.
- WTO and “Great Firewall,” (2007): Initiative before US Trade Representative to challenge Chinese government’s censorship of US internet companies as violation of WTO treaties. Although US declines to initiate trade case against China, FAC’s legal theory gains traction in State Department, Congress and in EU.
- Wikileaks, (2007): Before Wikileaks became household name for publishing classified US documents, it was targeted by Swiss banks fearing disclosure of their confidential accounts used to evade taxes. Wikileaks requests legal help after bank persuades US court to shut down website. FAC organizes successful legal intervention to void shut down order.
- Calendars of Governor’s aides, (2005): FAC sues California Governor for access to records of meetings conducted by his top aides. Governor releases documents in favorable settlement.
- CalPERS hedge fund investments, (2005): FAC sues biggest US pension for more transparency on CalPERS’ investments in hedge funds and venture capital. Favorable settlement provides for regular disclosure of management fees, profits (and losses), capital commitments, time-adjusted rates of return and other performance metrics.
- GIS data #1, (2007): FAC sued Santa Clara County in a test case intended to end county governments’ assertion of exclusive ownership over geographic data formatted for digital mapping technologies. Overcoming legal obstacles based on copyright and national security, FAC succeeded in obtaining GIS data, free, for media, businesses, nonprofits and individuals to develop new mapping and research tools.
- GIS data #2, (2011): Despite FAC victory in Santa Clara suit, Orange County refused to acknowledge outcome and denied environmental groups’ request for Orange County’s GIS basemap. FAC joined in this second legal test, which ultimately reached the California Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled against the county, thus resolving this crucial data challenge in favor of public access.
- Government employees, (2010): In a suit against Sacramento, FAC was successful in establishing the public’s right to obtain complete information on government employee pensions: the amounts paid to current retirees, by name. An earlier case in which FAC also was involved resulted in a Supreme Court decision requiring disclosure of salary and other compensation paid to all government employees.
- CalPERS real estate investments, (2009): FAC’s suit compelled the government pension system to disclose records revealing huge losses in real estate investments.
- Apple iPhone case, (2009) FAC was successful in challenging the seizure by police of a journalist’s computers as part of an investigation into the journalist’s possession of a pre-release iPhone prototype that Apple Computer had lost. FAC’s suit resulted in the unsealing of affidavits used to obtain the search warrant and demonstrated that the prosecutor, hoping to avoid using a subpoena, had failed to tell the judge that the target of the search was a journalist .
- San Bernardino, (2004): FAC sued for access to emails of the county assessor, who had been AWOL from his elected office. Records released, and made available to local media, contributed to the assessor’s later prosecution on political corruption charges.
- FAC v. Calderon, (1999): In multiple lawsuits in federal courts, FAC establishes that media have a constitutional right to witness the execution of condemned state or federal prisoner
Newsletter and Op-Ed ColumnsAs 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, Press-Enterprise, Press Democrat, Davis Wright Tremaine and Sheppard Mullin,
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.