FOI Oklahoma announces recipients of Opala First Amendment Award, FOI awards, college essay prizes

Anthony Shadid, the Oklahoma City native who died last month while on assignment in Syria for The New York Times, was named winner Saturday of FOI Oklahoma’s Marian Opala First Amendment Award.

Shadid promoted the spirit of the Opala Award in his journalistic work, particularly in the Middle East. The award is named in honor of the late Marian P. Opala, the former Polish freedom fighter who served 32 years on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Other awards presented at the organization’s annual Sunshine Week convention were the Ben Blackstock Award to Nicholas Harrison, a University of Oklahoma law school graduate, and the Sunshine Award to Police Chief Brandon Clabes of Midwest City.

The Black Hole Award, which recognizes an individual or organization that has thwarted the free-flow of information, went to Edmond City Manager Larry Stevens and the Edmond Police Department.

Winners of FOI Oklahoman's second annual open government essay contest for college students were also recognized Saturday at the organization's fifth annual Sunshine Week conference.

The first- and second-place winners were Oklahoma State University students Jennifer Gray and Carly Kindrick. Third place went to Mary Larsh of Oklahoma City University. The students won cash prizes of $300, $200 and $100.

The awards presentation was part of day-long activities in conjunction with Oklahoma Sunshine 2012: Forging a Commitment to Open Government.

Shadid twice won the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award. In his career, he worked for The Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said Shadid took values learned in Oklahoma, "a sympathetic eye, a sense of right and wrong, and the bravery to make a difference … and applied them to his craft."

The Times’ Roger Cohen said Shadid wrote "with an awareness of the sweep of history, a healthy mistrust of 'objectivity,' and a deep sense of place and identity."

The Blackstock Award, named for the retired head of the Oklahoma Press Association, is presented to a non-governmental person or organization that has shown a commitment to freedom of information.

Harrison won the Blackstock Award because of work he did with The Oklahoma Daily, the campus newspaper at OU.

Harrison used his legal savvy, a strong sense of justice and a reporter’s curiosity to probe some of OU’s biggest secrets. One story detailed OU regents committee meetings where university policy was decided in secret.

Harrison could not attend the awards luncheon because his Oklahoma National Guard unit is en route home from Afghanistan.

The Sunshine Award goes to a public official or governmental body that has shown a commitment to open meetings and open records.

Clabes was given the Sunshine Award for his help to the public and the media about the activities of law enforcement in Midwest City. He promotes openness in his department and works to provide information as soon as it becomes available.

A 32-year veteran of the Midwest City police force and chief since 1999, Clabes served as the department’s spokesman for more than two decades before recently announcing he was passing on the duty.

Coming from a family with a journalism background, he has consistently shown an understanding that the public's right to know what police are doing is an important aspect of local government. He is responsive and professional when dealing with local media and has been proactive about releasing public documents, including 911 calls.

An honorable mention went to Ed Shadid, an Oklahoma City councilman and a cousin of Anthony Shadid.

The Black Hole Award went to Stevens and his police department for violating the state Open Records Act by withholding the incident report regarding an investigation into the actions of Tim Wheeler, fire prevention chief and spokesman for the Edmond Fire Department.

At the request of FOI Oklahoma, the state attorney general in January told police statewide that initial incident reports may not be withheld from the public as part of investigatory files.

"The state Legislature has made it clear in this regard that a police department's initial offense report or 'cover sheet' should be open for public inspection, regardless of its inclusion in an investigation file," wrote Attorney General Scott Pruitt in a letter distributed to police departments.

Wheeler was placed on administrative leave with pay in October. He remains on paid leave at an annual salary of $100,027.

According to a Nov. 29, 2011, news release from Edmond police, Wheeler is accused of pointing a small-caliber pistol at another fire department employee on Oct. 6 while at Edmond Fire Station No. 5 at Covell and Interstate 35. A third employee reported the incident.
This is the fifth year for FOI Oklahoma's FOI-related awards. FOI Oklahoma is a statewide organization that for 22 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government. The organization counts among its members journalists, librarians, educators and public officials.

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.