You don’t often get to make a fellow journalist cry.
It happened in May in Nashville, Tenn., when a man named Bob Johnson stepped onto a podium amid thunderous applause and acknowledged his recognition as a hero. As he spoke to the assembled audience, his voice became choked with emotion and his eyes brimmed with tears born of joy, pride and surprise.
Johnson, of Albuquerque, N.M., was one of the first three people named as “Heroes of the 50 States” – the charter members of the brand new State Open Government Hall of Fame jointly created by SPJ and the National Freedom of Information Coalition. His was the first name called at a lunch-time awards ceremony held during the spring FOI conference jointly sponsored by the two organizations. Judging from the response from his peers throughout the country, it was an honor well-deserved and long overdue, something that also can be said of his fellow inductees, Sue Hale of Oklahoma and Michael Donoghue of Vermont.
More on the inductees in a moment. First, a bit of background: The idea of a hall of fame specifically recognizing long-term FOI advocacy at the state level first surfaced in earnest last spring at the NFOIC’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. It already had been brewing in the minds of Charles Davis, my fellow FOI Committee co-chair, and Tom Bennett, SPJ’s Project Sunshine Chair in Georgia.
Both Charles and Tom believed that we needed to create an awards program that specifically gave national recognition to long-term FOI efforts at the state and local level. That particular combination had gone unrecognized, despite the variety of awards programs in individual states and – in the case of SPJ’s annual “Sunshine Awards” – at the national level.
Tom had brought the idea to me over dinner in Atlanta during last year’s Region 3 conference. In Orlando, he, Charles and I shared the idea with others, including Guy Baehr, SPJ’s former Awards and Honors Committee chair, and NFOIC President Tom O’Hara of Cleveland. As spring turned to summer and summer into fall, our ad hoc group continued to talk and make plans.
In September, the SPJ board signed on, followed by the NFOIC leadership. The hall would induct its first members in the spring at the first national conference jointly sponsored by NFOIC and SPJ’s Project Sunshine. Three inductees would be named, setting the pattern for future years. Each inductee would receive a physical award and be recognized in a special section on the spj.org Web site.
Calls for nominations went out and, by February of this year, we had 11 candidates. From those, the screening committee chose the first three “Heroes of the 50 States,” each of whom has a remarkable resume of journalism, public education and advocacy.
SUE HALE, OKLAHOMA.
Sue is executive editor of The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. In 1990, she led the effort to create FOI Oklahoma as a means to promote openness in government across her state. She recruited members of the original steering committee, chaired the organization’s first bylaws committee and partnered with Oklahoma’s attorney general to organize FOI seminars for government officials throughout the state. She also created a committee that launched First Amendment Centers at libraries in the state and brought the “Education for Freedom” project to Oklahoma. She even created a special introductory program for it called “The Privacy Triangle.” She has been an important leader within NFOIC, serving for a time as its president.
Sue couldn’t attend the NFOIC conference in Nashville, so she was presented with her award in Oklahoma City before the main ceremony, thus becoming the first inductee to the Hall of Fame. “Some people have called me a fanatic,” she told the audience in videotaped remarks. “I know I’m passionate about the First Amendment.”
BOB JOHNSON, NEW MEXICO.
Bob helped create the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government in 1989 and is the only executive director that group has ever had. He’s responsible for the organization’s daily operations, its public education efforts, its legislative advocacy and its very successful litigation efforts. He personally answers roughly 1,000 phone calls each year through FOG’s legal information hotline and coordinates with more than a dozen lawyers who help FOG at no charge. He’s also a lifelong journalist, having spent more than 40 years at The Associated Press before retiring from New York to the desert Southwest. He likes to say he began his new career “just to keep my brain engaged.”
His voice cracking with emotion, he told the Nashville audience, “I’m sure freedom of information will still be going on when I reach that great open meeting in the sky.”
MICHAEL DONOGHUE, VERMONT.
Michael has been a staff reporter for the Burlington Free Press for 30 years. For 23 of those years, he’s been either an officer or the executive director of the Vermont Press Association. And for 18 of those years, he has taught journalism and mass communications at St. Michael’s College. He’s also a long-time SPJ Sunshine Chair in Vermont. His peers credit his advocacy in the Vermont legislature for getting cameras into state courtrooms, improving open records and meetings laws and keeping bad laws such as “veggie libel” off the books. In addition, he established his state’s first statewide high school journalism conference and helped write the Student Press Law Center’s guide to covering crime on campus. His work even has taken him to Dublin, Ireland, in 1998, as one of only four Americans invited to a conference to help usher in that country’s new FOI law.
“I thank my wife for allowing me to be here,” Donoghue said. “She’s the real brains of the operation.”
Now that we’ve begun this new project, it will be up to future SPJ leaders to keep the Hall going. It’s a worthwhile and valuable effort to recognize the legacy of our FOI advocates across the country.
The people who have made FOI work in the 50 states have given incredible amounts of their time, energy and sweat. They deserve a few tears of joy.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.