The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 9, 2013

Enid News & Eagle wins statewide First Amendment Award

Staff reports
Enid News and Eagle

NORMAN, Okla. — The Marian Opala First Amendment Award was presented to the Enid News & Eagle Saturday during FOI Oklahoma's Sunshine Week activities at the University of Oklahoma.

The News & Eagle was recognized for its successful lawsuit supporting the public’s First Amendment right of access to court records sealed by District Judge Ray Linder. The records involved the perjury case of Enid attorney Eric Edwards.

For nearly four months, the newspaper, its attorney Michael Minnis and reporters James Neal and Cass Rains fought with Edwards’ attorney, Stephen Jones, over the manner in which the records were sealed and removed from public view.

“Our objection was to the secrecy of this case, and we asked the court to declare this secrecy, this special treatment, unlawful and wrong,” Publisher Jeff Funk said.

“How can the public have faith in a justice system that keeps secrets, that hides certain cases in dark corners, especially a case involving another local attorney?”

In ordering the records opened, Judge Richard Van Dyck cited the News & Eagle’s First Amendment right to publish the news as the newspaper found it.

Although the charge against Edwards was eventually dismissed, Van Dyck said the public’s interest in knowing the truth was greater than the need to keep the records sealed, which would only “heighten suspicions.”

“The public needs to know what its elected officials are up to,” Van Dyck said. “The public has a right to know.”

Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, has since introduced a bill that could prevent courts from sealing any records or files unless specifically authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or by statute.

Executive Editor Rob Collins said Neal and Rains were nominated for the Opala Award on behalf of the News & Eagle.

“Our two reporters deserve special recognition for showing principled persistence and courage throughout their coverage,” Collins said.

The Opala Award is named for the late Marian P. Opala, the former Polish freedom fighter who served 32 years on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. A strong advocate of First Amendment rights, Opala attributed that commitment to his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The award recognizes protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Previous recipients are civil rights leader Clara Luper, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Shadid, the Oklahoma City native who died while on assignment in Syria for The New York Times.

In addition to the Opala Award, the following awards were presented:

•The organization named Gov. Mary Fallin and her general counsel, Steve Mullins, for the Black Hole Award. The organization uses its Black Hole Award to recognize someone who has damaged the public’s right to know.

On several occasions, Fallin and attorney Mullins claimed privileges for the executive branch allowed her to hide emails and other records from public scrutiny.

Some of the emails could shed light on why she refused to create a state health insurance exchange, according to a report in The Oklahoman.

Although Mullins claimed the records were protected by executive privilege, no such privilege has been recognized by Oklahoma courts.

•The Ben Blackstock Award went to the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.

Video footage of an incident in which two local police officers were accused of assaulting a hospital patient was released through that publication’s efforts.

• State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, was presented the Sunshine Award for opening the doors of secrecy at the Department of Human Services. Nelson spearheaded efforts to reform DHS on how they track and report child death and near death.

This was the sixth year that FOI has presented its awards.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 23 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government.

The organization includes journalists, librarians, educators, government officials and private citizens. FOI Oklahoma is a national leader in training educators to teach the First Amendment in Oklahoma classrooms. It also sponsors an annual First Amendment Congress for students.