Watchdogs in action

A look at the winners of this year's Freedom of Information Awards

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The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California, will honor the following James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners during a March 20 banquet. Details on their work and the dinner are available at www.spjnorcal.org.

 

VOICE FOR PRISONERS

Throughout his 29-year journalism career, Peter Sussman, a retired San Francisco Chronicle editor, advocated for greater media access to prisoners and fought to uphold the rights of inmate journalists. In the 1980s, federal prison officials cracked down on inmate Dannie "Red Hog" Martin for writing to Sussman to share what life was like behind bars.

The retaliation spurred an epic battle over free speech within prison walls, and Sussman responded by publishing Martin's regular writings about prison life, and later co-authoring a book with him titled Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.

In the mid-'90s, Sussman fought state prison officials' restrictions on media interviews with prisoners. He also helped write and sponsor statewide legislation to overturn limits restricting media access to prisons. Sussman will receive the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement.

 

GUIDING ASPIRING JOURNALISTS

Beverly Kees Educator Award winner Rob Gunnison is a former instructor and administrator at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where he arrived after spending 15 years covering government and politics in Sacramento for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a longtime instructor of a course called "Reporting and Writing the News," Gunnison has continued to educate hungry young journalists on how to seek public records and carry out investigative reporting projects.

 

EXPOSING ATROCITIES

Peter Buxton will be honored with the FOI Whistleblower/Source Award. In 1972, Buxton played a key role in alerting the press to the ongoing operation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where African American sharecroppers were intentionally exposed to the disease, without treatment or their knowledge, so researchers could study its progression.

By the time the story was related to the press, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others had died of related complications. That leak helped spur Congressional hearings on the practice beginning in 1973, ultimately spurring a complete overhaul of federal regulations. A class-action lawsuit was filed, resulting in a $10 million settlement.

 

EXPOSING BART'S SCHEME

Reporter Tom Vacar of KTVU pushed for records determining whether replacement drivers that BART was training to help break last year's labor strike were qualified to safely operate the trains, eventually finding that they had been simply rubber-stamped by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Those findings proved gravely significant on Oct. 21 when two workers on the tracks were killed by a BART train operated at the time by an uncertified trainee, an accident still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

 

STANDING FOR SUNSHINE

California Sen. Leland Yee is once again being honored by SPJ Norcal for his work on sunshine issues, including last year criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown and other fellow Democrats who had sought to weaken the California Public Records Act, instead seeking to strengthen the ability of the courts to enforce the law.

 

FIGHTING THE CITY

Freelance journalist Richard Knee's Distinguished Service Award caps a 12-year fight for open government in a city eager to stash its skeletons securely in closets.

Knee is a longtime member of the San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, created in 1994 to safeguard the city's Sunshine Ordinance, and he has fought to maintain its power and relevance.