Freeing the press - Page 3

Longtime media crusaders and students battling censorship honored by the Society of Professional Journalists with James Madison Awards in 2009

"I think my bringing his plight to the public will hopefully prevent similar things from happening to other children." (Joe Sciareillo)



Journalist Bert Robinson is a longtime journalist who now serves as assistant managing editor for the San Jose Mercury News. But he's being honored for his work as a citizen serving on San Jose's Sunshine Reform Task Force.

"We set out on our sunshine ordinance adventure a few years ago. We found we were faring worse in court, and we couldn't afford increased court costs," Robinson, a member of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Guardian.

The project received political endorsements across the spectrum, but the initiative has had problems with the city council's Rules Committee, controlled by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who has supported sunshine in the past.

"We achieved progress with public meeting requirements, but when you get into public records, city staff argue that rules are 'too cumbersome' ... They say all sorts of things might happen if they become public, [which is] entirely hypothetical," Robinson said.

Task Force work that was slated to last six months has now dragged on for two years. "The city process grinds you down," Robinson said. But he says he's committed to seeing it through. (Ben Terrall)

Legal Counsel


James Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, has long battled what he calls widespread secrecy in government. So in 2004, he played an instrumental role in providing greater public access to government meetings and records, resulting in the passage that November of Proposition 59, the Sunshine Amendment of California's constitution.

Most recently Ewert helped Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) with legislation protecting teachers from retribution from administrators when they defend the First Amendment rights of journalism students. Next Ewert hopes to allow greater scrutiny of public/press partnerships and how tax dollars are used in labor negotiations by the public university systems.

Ewert says the public's right to know is still severely hampered by public safety concerns, including restrictions on journalists' rights to interview prisoners and obtain information about police officers. But luckily for the public, Ewert is still on the job. (Andrew Shaw)

Student Journalists — High School


Before April 2008, Drew Ross had never had to defend the existence of the Eureka High School Redwood Bark, where he was the editor. But after arriving on campus one Monday morning to find that former principal Robert Steffen had removed 450 copies of a 20-page color edition of the paper, Ross and his staff fought back.

Steffen claimed that the nude, dream-like drawing by artist Natalie Gonzalez had ushered in a handful of complaints from students and parents. Steffen justified the action by saying he was "stomping out the flames before they became a forest fire."

"We told him we wanted to hold onto the paper but he recycled them," Ross told the Guardian. "We don't make the paper for it to be thrown away. And we lost a lot of advertising on this."

Ross complained about censorship and got help from the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. By the next day, the censorship story went front page at newspapers and Internet sites all over the country. Eventually Steffen not only sent out a public apology, he paid for the next 20-page color edition.

"We are now armed with knowledge of our rights," Ross said.