James Madison Freedom of Information Award Winners - Page 5

SF journalism association honors this year's First Amendment heroes
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But it was left to San Jose Mercury News editorial writers to push for transparent and accessible government and better enforcement of the state's open government laws.

First they shamed the city, pointing out that "San Francisco, Oakland, even Milpitas have better public-access laws." Next they hammered then-mayor Ron Gonzales for saying that calls for more open government were "a bunch of nonsense." Then they printed guiding principles for a proposed sunshine ordinance that they'd developed in conjunction with the League of Women Voters and Mercury News attorney James Chadwick.

When city council member Chuck Reed was elected mayor on a platform of open government reforms, the paper still didn't give up. Instead, it's continuing to champion the need to bring more sunshine to San Jose and working with a community task force on breaking new ground, such as taping closed sessions so they can one day be made available when there's no further need for secrecy.

Somehow the Merc also managed to pull off another amazing feat: the paper built public understanding of and support for sunshine along the way. (Phelan)

SAN MATEO COUNTY TIMES

When outbreaks of the highly contagious norovirus sprang up in a number of California counties, San Mateo County was among those hit. Public health officials, however, would not release the names of the facilities where numerous individuals became infected, citing concerns about privacy and not wanting to discourage facility managers from contacting health officials.

Nonetheless, the San Mateo County Times ran a series of reports on the outbreaks in the named and unnamed facilities. After publishing reports on unnamed facilities, the news staff began to receive phone calls from residents who wanted to know the names of the facilities. Times reporter Rebekah Gordon told us it became clear that the public wanted to know this information, and the paper fought the county's secrecy.

Gordon learned that facilities are required by law to report outbreaks, regardless of the potential for media exposure. Times attorney Duffy Carolan sought out and won the disclosure of the names of four facilities.

"The county's initial nondisclosure decision evoked public policy and public safety concerns at a very broad level, and nondisclosure would have had a very profound effect on the public's ability to obtain information that affects their own health and safety. By persisting in the face of secrecy, the Times was able to establish a precedent and practice that will well serve to inform their readers in the future," Carolan told us.

The paper learned the outbreak was far more widespread than the county had admitted, finding 146 cases in six facilities. Gordon said, "The numbers were so much higher than we were ever led to believe." (Julie Park)

Online free speech

JOSH WOLF

Even as he sits inside the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, where he's been denied on-camera and in-person interviews, jailed freelance journalist Josh Wolf manages to get out the message. Last month Wolf, who is imprisoned for refusing to give up video outtakes of a July 2005 anarchist protest in the Mission that turned violent, earned a place in the Guinness World Records for being the journalist to have served the longest jail term in US history for resisting a subpoena.

His thoughts on the agenda behind his incarceration were read at press conferences that day, reminding everyone of the importance of a free press.