Opala First Amendment Award, FOI awards, college essay winners announced

Joann Bell, who retired recently after 24 years with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, was named winner of FOI Oklahoma’s Marian Opala First Amendment Award on Saturday.

The organization also presented its Ben Blackstock Award to The Oklahoman for its work to keep state employee birth dates open, and its Sunshine Award to state Rep. Jason Murphey, R- Guthrie, for his sponsorship and support of bills to increase transparency in government.

The Black Hole Award winner was state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, for working to exempt state employees’ birth dates.

FOI Oklahoma also announced winners of its first open government-themed essay contest for college students. First place went to Nicole Hill of the University of Oklahoma. The second- and third-place winners were Oklahoma State University students Lisa Watkins and Elizabeth Goodfellow. The students won cash prizes of $300, $200 and $100.

The awards presentation was part of day-long activities in conjunction with Sunshine Week, which highlighted "Local Heroes" across the country who have played significant roles in fighting for open government.

The Opala Award, named for the late state Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala, recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Bell, of Harrah, started with the ACLU as a part-time litigation coordinator in 1987 and then became the Oklahoma ACLU’s second executive director in 1988.

Bell went to work with the ACLU after a long but successful court battle. She was a plaintiff in a seminal 10th Circuit Court case on the separation of church and state. (Bell v. Little Axe Independent School District, 766 F. 2d 1391 (1985))

Bell, a member of the Church of the Nazarene, and her co-plaintiff pursued the lawsuit in the face of hostility from the community.

The Oklahoman was named winner of the Blackstock Award, which goes to a non-governmental person or organization that has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

The newspaper won the award for its work to keep state employees birth dates available. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association wants the birth dates added to a list of information that is exempt from the state Open Records Act. Current exemptions in the law include employees’ Social Security numbers, home address and telephone numbers.

Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson said the birth dates should be considered available to the public unless there are overriding reasons to shut them off. The OPEA has gone to court to prevent the state from making birth dates available upon request. The case is pending.

Meanwhile, Terrill was named winner of the Black Hole Award – presented to someone who thwarts the free flow of information – for, among other things, introducing legislation that would exempt government employees' birth dates from the Open Records Act.

Murphey, a former member of the Guthrie City Council, received the Sunshine Award, which goes to a public official or governmental body that has shown a commitment to open meetings and open records.

He was elected to the state Legislature in 2006, campaigning on a platform of never accepting contributions or gifts from lobbyists or groups that employee lobbyists.

He has been an advocate of transparency in government since arriving at the state Capitol. A bill introduced by Murphey would require the Legislature to comply with the state Open Meeting and Open Records laws – just as any other state agency must do.

This was the fourth year for the awards. Last year’s winners were the Tulsa World for the Blackstock Award, Kristy Yager of the city of Oklahoma City for the Sunshine Award, and Lindel Hutson, former Oklahoma Associated Press bureau chief, for the Opala Award. The Black Hole Award went to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the Oklahoma city attorney's office.

FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 21 years has promoted education of the public on the First Amendment and openness in government. The organization counts among its members journalists, librarians and educators.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.