Sunshine heroes: Call for nominations!

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By Rebecca Bowe

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Not every bright star who snags a James Madison Freedom of Information Award is a superstar investigative journalist. The annual contest, administered by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, honors citizens and journalists alike who’ve exercised their right to obtain public documents and used the information to produce stellar work. The awards also recognize those who’ve poured time and energy into promoting greater government transparency.

Right now, the SPJ NorCal Chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee is accepting nominations for The 25th Annual James Madison Awards. The awards recognize Northern California organizations and individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of freedom of information and expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment.

Click here to go to an online nomination form. The last day to send a nomination is January 9, 2010.

The awards are presented at a ceremony in March during National Freedom of Information Week, near the anniversary of Madison’s birth. Eligible for nomination are Northern California journalists, citizens, media organizations, or community groups who, during 2009, have defended public access to meetings, public records, or court proceedings or otherwise promoted the public’s right to know, publish and speak freely about issues of public concern.

If you know of some one whose mission in life in 2009 was to shed light on the way business was being conducted by local, state, or federal government, nominate them for a James Madison Award. If you know a fighter who diligently combs through government documents requested via the Freedom of Information Act in order to win victories for humanity, send a description of their accomplishments in 2009.

Last year, a few of the Freedom of Information luminaries who were honored included James Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association and longtime foe of government secrecy, who helped Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) draft legislation shielding teachers against retribution from administrators when they defended the First Amendment rights of journalism students.

Marjie Lundstrom, an investigative journalist with the Sacramento Bee, utilized documents from Child Protective Services agencies in cases where children had passed away, exposing the negligence of CPS workers in responding to abuse reports. Lundstrom was able to obtain the files and craft her hard-hitting pieces after California’s Senate Bill 39 went into effect in January 2008, allowing public access to CPS records associated with those tragic cases.

Drew Ross, editor of student newspaper Redwood Bark at Eureka High School, won the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center after the school principal dumped freshly printed copies of the paper into the recycling bin, because it contained a controversial drawing of a nude figure. After a highly publicized fight for their First Amendment rights, Ross and his student newspaper team won a public apology from the principal, who also picked up the tab for the print cost of the following issue.

Kathi Austin, a San Francisco-based human rights investigator, has spent almost two decades tracking down and exposing those who have made a business out of human-rights violations. Austin was honored with a James Madison Award last year after helping bring down the notorious Viktor Bout, a Russian entrepreneur accused of illegally trafficking weapons to brutal regimes from Colombia to the Congo. Austin’s tireless efforts and meticulous research helped precipitate Bout’s arrest in Thailand in March 2008.

On March 16, 2010, a new crop of brave, information-seeking leaders will be recognized with James Madison Awards. Just remember to submit the nomination form by January 9, 2010.

Note: Rebecca Bowe is a co-chair of the SPJ NorCal Chapter’s FOI Committee.