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Freedom of information awards announced

Daily Planet staff and wire reports
Saturday February 17, 2001

The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter announced this week that the Berkeley Daily Planet is among 12 organizations and individuals to be honored next month with the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.  

The annual awards honor those who have promoted and defended free speech and public access to government information. 

“Since its founding (almost) two years ago, the Berkeley Daily Planet has given continuous priority to coverage of violations and other abuses of state open-meeting and public-records laws in Berkeley city government,” says a SPJ press statement. 

“I’m extremely proud that our newspaper is receiving this honor,” said Daily Planet Publisher Arnold Lee. “It recognizes what the community has already told us: that our approach to high-quality community journalism is a valuable asset to our city.” 

Among the open government issues reported by the Daily Planet are: city councilmembers voting on issues just placed before them; the gagging by the former city manager of city staff, prohibiting them from talking to the press; the naming of an interim city manager behind closed doors; the prohibition of city councilmembers from joining on-line discussions; the prohibition of disabled commissioners from “attending” meetings via phone when they have last-minute problems prohibiting them from getting to the meetings.  

The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, named for the creative force behind the First Amendment, honor local organizations and individuals who have fought for public access to government meetings and records, or have promoted the public’s right to know, publish, broadcast, and speak freely about issues of public concern. 

Winners include: 

• Prof. C. James Schmidt, San Jose State University, School of Library and Information Science. Schmidt was named winner of the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award. A long-time advocate for freedom of information in libraries, Schmidt formerly headed the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and Freedom to Read Foundation. Last year he served on the Child Online Protection Act Commission, which advised Congress on regulating the availability of “harmful to minors” content on public library computer terminals. 

• ACLU of Northern California. The SPG will honor the organization as “a leading defender of free speech and freedom of information, taking on major legal battles, public information campaigns, and legislative efforts to ensure the public’s basic rights under the First Amendment.” 

• Tanya Smith, of The Argus (Fremont). As a staff reporter at The Argus, Smith served as a watchdog of the Ohlone College Board of Trustees, reporting frequently on illegal closed sessions and other violations of California’s Ralph M. Brown Open Meeting Act. 

• Fredric Tulsky, San Jose Mercury News. Using documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Tulsky spent two years conducting the first-ever nationwide analysis of asylum decisions by federal immigration judges, revealing, in a series of special reports, widespread unfairness and inconsistency in their decision-making. 

• Stockton Record. In December, the Record published the results of an extensive survey of 

local government agencies it undertook to monitor compliance with the California Public Records Act. 

• Sonoma Index-Tribune. Throughout much of last year, the I-T fought Public Records Act denials and made innovative use of public records it did obtain in an ongoing investigation that exposed official secrecy and incompetence in the investigation of client-abuse incidents at the Sonoma Developmental Center. 

• Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center, Félix Gutiérrez (Executive Director), Beverly Kees (Program Director). The Pacific Coast Center closed its doors in December after many years of serving as a meeting place and educational resource for the local First Amendment community, offering a variety of workshops, discussion forums, film screenings, and other programs to journalists, attorneys, and advocates of free expression. 

Winners will be honored at the Sixth Annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards dinner on Tuesday, March 27 at the Fort Mason Officers Club in San Francisco. For ticket information call 415-487-2589.