James Madison Freedom of Information Award Winners

The 2007 James Madison Freedom of Information Award Winners: this year's First Amendment heroes

The Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California Chapter has been handing awards for 22 years to journalists, educators, public officials, and citizens who best exemplify the importance of open and accountable government and a free and diligent press. And every year the Guardian recognizes the winners and helps highlight the important issues that they raise for the Bay Area and beyond. Here are this year's winners:

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award


Three few years ago the Oakland Unified School District announced that, due to budget constraints, it was shutting down all the student-run newspapers in the district. Rowland "Reb" Rebele lives in Aptos, but he read about the shutdown in a San Francisco Chronicle column.

He picked up the phone, made some calls, and found out the situation was desperate and how much money was needed. He then wrote a check sufficient to resurrect the student newspapers for a year. Then he kept on writing checks to keep the papers going last year and again this year. This was typical of Rebele. No one asked him for help. He received virtually no acknowledgment for his gift. But his timely action turned the lights back on for fledgling newspapers that were out of money and, it seemed, out of luck.

Rebele is a First Amendment mensch (a description that James Madison, had he any familiarity with Yiddish, would have approved of). In his half century of publishing community newspapers that he owned and operated in Coalinga, Chula Vista, and Paradise in California and across the country, he was energetic, inspiring, and devoted to his readers and his communities, and a demon in pushing for open government and accountability. He pursued the same policies as a stalwart for half a century in the California Newspaper Publishers Association and as an activist president who brought key reforms and exceptional leaders to the organization.

Rebele has been a director of the California First Amendment Coalition for a decade. He quickly became the one truly indispensable member of the organization, pushing it, pulling it, holding it together, and cajoling it to broaden its activities because he felt the organization and its mission were vital.

He has also launched an innovative internship program at Stanford University. Rather than just give money to the school, he and his wife, Pat, created a program that has enabled dozens of students to get hands-on experience writing for real newspapers in California. Quietly and selflessly, Rebele has spent his newspaper career fighting the good fight for First Amendment and public interest principles. (Bruce B. Brugmann)

Beverly Kees Educator Award


Art Institute of San Francisco instructor Robert Ovetz was fired after he criticized the administration for confiscating a magazine his students produced for his class last December.

Ovetz, who had taught at the institute for three years, told his students to create a "culturally critical" magazine as their final project for a cultural studies class he taught last fall. They produced a 36-page zine called Mute/Off.

Less than 24 hours after he and students distributed 500 copies of the magazine, which Ovetz printed with the institute's copy machine, most were gone. Ovetz initially attributed their disappearance to popularity, but he soon learned from students that the administration of the school, which was purchased by Goldman Sachs and General Electric last year, had removed them from its campuses and even literally pulled them out of students' hands.

"This is an example of how a corporation is not held accountable for upholding basic constitutional rights [to] free speech.