San José Spotlight honored for championing freedom of information
San José Spotlight's award-winning team is pictured at the 39th Annual James Madison Awards in San Francisco.

San José Spotlight won a prestigious James Madison Award this month at a gala hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, an honor that celebrates champions of transparency and accountability.

The annual awards, now in their 39th year, highlight individuals and organizations working to preserve and advance freedom of information in Northern California through journalism, as well as activism and the law.

San José Spotlight, a national leader among nonprofit newsrooms, received the 2024 James Madison Award for News Media (Smaller Outlet) in recognition of the organization’s successful lawsuit against San Jose and its former Mayor Sam Liccardo for violating state transparency laws and improperly withholding public records.

The lawsuit followed years of San José Spotlight’s watchdog reporting on Liccardo’s attempts to skirt state transparency laws by using a private email account to conduct city business. San José Spotlight partnered with the First Amendment Coalition to file the suit in February 2022, an effort to ensure government transparency in San Jose and compliance with the California Public Records Act.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled last August that Liccardo and the city violated state transparency laws by failing to prove they adequately searched his personal texts and emails for public records. The order marked a clear victory for transparency and the public’s right to know. The city paid $500,000 in attorney’s fees after losing the case.

San José Spotlight was represented by nationally-acclaimed San Francisco media law attorney Karl Olson, who was also recognized at the James Madison Awards with the top honor — the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award.

The legal victory also reinforced a landmark California Supreme Court decision in 2017 that declared communications on private accounts and devices are public records if they deal with official business. The ruling stemmed from a high-profile San Jose case and Liccardo was a councilmember at the time. Olson, who co-litigated that pivotal case, called Liccardo a “repeat offender.”

“The Spotlight explained to readers why this mattered and held Liccardo accountable in court,” SPJ NorCal said in a news release. “The civil case they brought alongside the First Amendment Coalition resulted in numerous disclosures of records and a hard-won declaratory judgment against the former mayor and the city…”

The lawsuit inspired state Sen. Dave Cortese to introduce a bill that would require public officials to forward communications on personal accounts and devices that deal with public business to an official channel. The bill did not move forward in the state Senate, but Ramona Giwargis, co-founder and CEO of San José Spotlight, said the fight for transparency is not over.

“We are disappointed that SB 908 did not get the consideration it deserved, but we are not giving up. We’re going to continue working on this issue,” Giwargis said.  “Californians deserve transparency and accountability when it comes to the conduct of their government. It’s time for the Legislature to act and muster the political will to advance these common-sense solutions.”

The 39th annual James Madison Awards took place at the Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco.

This is the second James Madison Award for San José Spotlight. It received the award in 2021 for its “regular and inventive” use of public records in local government reporting. Since its launch in 2019, this news organization has won more than 20 state and national awards including three first place awards in December from the San Francisco Press Club.

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