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Two Texas news organizations have won Spirit of FOI Awards for reporting on a city’s potential free speech and open meetings violations and for waging a legal battle to obtain public records in a fatal police encounter.
The Nancy Monson Spirit of FOI Award, presented by the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, highlights journalism that upholds the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press and promotes or uses open government laws such as the Texas Public Information Act.
The winners – The Highlander of Marble Falls and The Dallas Morning News – will be honored in the foundation’s online awards program Nov. 10.
“We congratulate these Spirit of FOI honorees for standing up for the people’s right to know. Transparency laws can and should be used by journalists and all citizens to keep a watch on our government,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
The Highlander won in the Class A smaller market category for championing open government for the citizens of Meadowlakes in July 2019 when the city instituted overly restrictive rules for public comments and suggested citizens could be charged with a crime for what they say.
The Highlander managing editor Lew K. Cohn reported that the rules likely violated constitutional free speech rights and attempted to weaponize the Texas Open Meetings Act. The city council then rescinded its rules.
“We at The Highlander are truly honored to receive this year’s Freedom of Information award,” The Highlander publisher Jeff Shabram said. “Our exceptional editorial staff is dedicated to upholding the First Amendment by providing and enriching the Highland Lakes area with vital news and information through transparency and journalistic integrity. I am proud of our news team and their continuing diligence and commitment in keeping our communities informed.”
“A strong community newspaper not only serves as the primary chronicle of the history of its coverage area, but also practices accountability journalism by acting in its role as the community’s conscience to safeguard and promote the most vital aspects of our democracy, including the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Cohn said. “We take those roles seriously at The Highlander and appreciate the recognition we have received from the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas for performing that mission.”
The Dallas Morning News won in the Class AA large market category for its persistent battle to obtain public records in the death of a mentally ill man who was restrained by police. After Dallas city officials refused to release records about the exchange, the Dallas Morning News went to court to get them. Ultimately, a judge ruled in the News’ favor, saying the public has a compelling interest in understanding what took place. Video footage of the encounter helped the community hold its government accountable.
Honorable mention in Class AA went to KXAN of Austin for its investigation of Texas law enforcement officers who surrender their peace officer licenses as a bargaining chip to get lenient sentences and avoid prison for committing crimes.
The Nancy Monson Spirit of FOI Award is named for the FOI Foundation’s first executive director. The contest is open to newspaper, broadcast and online journalism.