SPJ/LA chapter president joins others in expressing concern about how departure of executive director was announced

Below is a statement initiated by the DC Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists after this week’s announcement of the resignation of the Society’s executive director. Several SPJ chapters and chapter presidents signed on to the statement because of our shared concerns about the timing of the announcement and its limited dissemination. The statement that follows gives more details about our concerns.

Dear national board of directors:

We wish to register our concern about the way that the departure of Society of Professional Journalists executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie was announced. As journalists ourselves and as active members of the premier U.S. nonprofit representing the values of transparency, public service, oversight and accuracy, we believe this could have been handled in a much more transparent way.

The sole description of this departure was that Bethel McKenzie “resigned.“ This statement was not attributed to anyone.

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We fully appreciate that this is a personnel matter and that many details must be kept private. However, it is incumbent, we believe, among all organizations to be as transparent and detailed as possible under such circumstances. Indeed, the boilerplate information directly below the two sentences announcing her resignation and wishing her the best in future endeavors starts by saying: “SPJ promotes the free flow of information …”

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We write to you in a cooperative spirit in hoping to positively contribute to the organization’s well-being. We hope you will include local chapters as much as possible in this process.

This brief news release was issued at around midnight on April 29, 2019. Unlike with most other press releases from this association, it was apparently not sent to members of the media. Nor was it sent to members themselves.

This announcement was not released on social media, either. Unlike most other announcements from our group. Best communications and public relations practices dictate releasing even negative information in the same or similar ways as positive information.

We request that going forward, the association and its board do a better job communicating to all stakeholders about such important issues. For starters, who is the point person or people to whom questions can be addressed, such as what will be the process for picking a successor to Bethel McKenzie. How can they be contacted?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Respectfully,

The boards of the DC Pro, Chicago Headline Club, Florida Pro and San Diego Pro chapters of SPJ

And on their own behalf:

Anna Walsh, Maryland Pro Chapter president
Jordan Frias, New England Pro Chapter president
Stephanie Bluestein, Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter president
Amanda Waldroupe, Oregon Territory Chapter president

SPJ/LA Joins Amicus Brief in Support of Palisades News in Defamation Lawsuit

The Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief, along with a motion for judicial notice and exhibits, filed by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press on behalf of the Palisades News and two of its editors, who have been sued by cannabis entrepreneur Stephanie Smith for alleged defamation.

In December 2017, San Bernardino police raided three Smith-owned facilities suspected of operating illegal marijuana-growing operations. They also served a search warrant on Smith’s oceanfront home in Pacific Palisades, where they recovered hundreds of oxycodone and Norco pills hidden in the garage, along with a reported $200,000 in cash.

While the initial raids received massive national and international news coverage, Smith took issue with a subsequent January 2018 Palisades News article that cited earlier news reports about the raid and the search from TV outlets KCBS, KTLA, and DailyMailTV, along with interviews with police officials, about Smith’s allegedly illegal activities in connection with large-scale cannabis production.

Smith disclaimed any involvement in the grow operations and insisted she was only a landlord renting to others. A statement from her attorney quoted her as saying, “I am a well-known and recognized leader in large-scale cannabis real estate development and I am proud of the State of California’s position on cannabis.”

In March 2018, Smith sued the Palisades News in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). In response, the News filed a motion to quash the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which bars litigation intended to stifle public discussion of issues and policy. The judge largely agreed with the News, striking the false light and IIED claims but allowing the defamation claim to proceed.

After filing a notice of appeal in August 2018, the News filed its opening brief before California’s Second Appellate District in February 2019; Smith filed her brief in March 2019, and the News filed its response in April 2019. It is in support of the Palisades News’ appeal that this amicus brief has been filed, arguing that Smith is a public figure and that the First Amendment protects the News under the neutral reportage and wire-service doctrines, which shields news organizations who accurately report in good faith what other reputable news organizations have previously reported.

Meanwhile, the San Bernardino Sun reported on February 25, 2019 that Smith had sued the City of San Bernardino after the City Council denied Smith’s application for cannabis production. The Sun also reported that earlier in the month, after a 14-month investigation, San Bernardino police raided one of Smith’s properties and seized 2,600 lbs. of marijuana from an allegedly illegal growing operation, and subsequently arrested Smith at her Palisades home in connection with the drugs and cash that had been seized in 2017. On March 7, 2019, the Sun reported that Los Angeles County prosecutors have charged her with one felony count of possession for sale of a controlled substance; she is due in court on April 25 for a pretrial hearing.

In addition to SPJ/LA, other news organizations who have signed on to the amicus brief include the American Society of News Editors, California News Publishers Association, Californians Aware, First Amendment Coalition, SPJ/NorCal and SPJ national, the News Media Alliance, and media companies including the Los Angeles Times, Digital First Media, E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Co. Inc., McClatchy Company, and Fox Television Stations, LLC, among others.

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SPJ/LA in coordination with ONA/LA hosts online harassment self-defense training for journalists, facilitated by PEN America

Building on PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual, this training equips writers and journalists, as well as their allies and employers, with practical tools and strategies to defend against online abuses, including: preparation, response, legal considerations, self-care and best practices for offering support. Join the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Los Angeles chapter of the Online News Association for Online Harassment Self-Defense: Tools & Strategies for Journalists.

WHAT: Online Harassment Self-Defense: Tools & Strategies for Journalists

WHO: Led by PEN America

WHEN: Wednesday, April 17 (7-9pm)

WHERE: Santa Monica College Bundy Campus
3171 S Bundy Drive
Santa Monica
Room 121

PARKING: Parking is available in the front of the building. Be sure to park head first in a space NOT marked ‘staff’.

COST: The event itself is free and open to the public. SPJ/LA will provide light refreshments.

RSVP: ashanti.blaize@gmail.com

CONTACT:
Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins
SPJ/LA
ashanti.blaize@gmail.com

Statement Opposing Proposed Changes to California Public Records Act

Society of Professional Journalists
Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter
Post Office Box 572632
Tarzana, CA 91357

April 1, 2019

The Society of Professional Journalists, Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter is opposed to AB 700 (Friedman), which is scheduled for a hearing before your committee on April 2, 2019, unless the bill is amended.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman’s bill, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a proposal to amend the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to exclude broad new categories of records related to research conducted through public colleges and universities. UCS and its allies assert that CPRA has been abused to harass researchers, interfere with their work, and compromise and undermine legitimate scholarship and the academic mission of free inquiry.

SPJ/LA respects the integrity of the academy and can readily agree that harassment, threats, and intimidation are antithetical to the proper function of higher education institutions, and to a healthy and robust democracy.

However, we believe there are adequate legal protections and statutory remedies already in place that afford colleges and universities ample opportunity to respond effectively to overly intrusive and inappropriate records requests. To the extent that additional legislation may be
deemed necessary, it should be very narrowly tailored and carefully considered in the context of protecting openness and transparency in public institutions, and ensuring the widest possible participation in public processes and decision-making, as paramount values in a democratic society.

We support the positions taken by the California News Publishers Association (CNPA) and the California First Amendment Coalition, who oppose the bill unless amended. And we endorse CNPA’s publicly stated commitment “to continuing to work with the author on narrowing the
scope of the bill so that it is not harmful to the public’s right to know what government agencies are doing on its behalf.”

SPJ/LA Letter to UC Board of Regents

Society of Professional Journalists
Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter
Post Office Box 572632
Tarzana, CA 91357

 

March 5, 2019

To the UC Board of Regents:
Maria Anguiano
Richard C. Blum
Laphonza Butler
Michael Cohen
Gareth Elliott
Cecilia Estolano
Devon Graves
Howard “Peter” Guber
George Kieffer
Sherry L. Lansing
Richard Leib
Hadi Makarechian
Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Lark Park
John A. Pérez
Richard Sherman
Jonathan “Jay” Sures
Ellen Tauscher
Charlene Zettel

Ex Officio Regents
Gavin Newsom
Eleni Kounalakis
Anthony Rendon
Tony Thurmond
Janet Napolitano
Darin Anderson
Jason Morimoto

Dear Members:

I am writing on behalf of the Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ/LA) to call to your attention what we believe to be a willful violation by UCLA of the California Public Records Act. We have been seeking some very specific information from UCLA without success for the past year, and UCLA has honored neither the letter nor the spirit of the law in failing to provide it, or even in providing any explanation or justification for their failure to provide it.

On February 26, 2018, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delivered a lecture on the UCLA campus at the invitation of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. It is the longstanding practice of the Center to post the video and podcast of such appearances its website; these are, after all, public appearances by public figures on a publicly funded college campus, open to the general public.

Nevertheless, because hecklers at one point briefly disrupted his presentation, Secretary Mnuchin retroactively withdrew his permission to post the video, and UCLA complied. After SPJ/LA and other organizations publicly complained that UCLA had no right to censor the video of this public event, and after internal consultations with its own lawyers, UCLA quickly reversed its position and one day later, posted the video and podcast of Mnuchin’s appearance.

SPJ/LA has repeatedly asked for an explanation and background material behind both UCLA’s initial decision to withhold publication of the video, and its reversal to allow the posting. Because UCLA declined to voluntarily provide the requested information, we were initially advised by Peggy McInerney, Director of Communications for the Burkle Center, on March 5, 2018 that we would have to submit a formal CPRA request to the office of UCLA Information Practices. That letter of request is attached. We received a boiler-plate letter 10 days later, on 3/16/18 (also attached), designating our request as PRR #18-5461

Since that time, we have received nothing but auto-generated emails every two months, not signed by any individual, telling us they have to revise the timetable because they “have not completed the requisite review.” It seems quite obvious to us that UCLA has no intention ever of completing it, and are hoping that we will simply give up and go away.

In September, we publicly complained after six months of total inaction by UCLA on our request.

In November, we contacted a prominent First Amendment and government transparency attorney who told us that UCLA, in functionally ignoring our CPRA request, “is grossly and unlawfully delinquent in its foot-dragging.”

He cited the pertinent Government Code Section in the CPRA as 6253 (c):

Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor.

In unusual circumstances, the time limit prescribed in this section may be extended by written notice by the head of the agency or his or her designee to the person making the request, setting forth the reasons for the extension and the date on which a determination is expected to be dispatched. No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days.

When the agency dispatches the determination, and if the agency determines that the request seeks disclosable public records, the agency shall state the estimated date and time when the records will be made available.

As used in this section, “unusual circumstances” means the following, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to the proper processing of the particular request:
(1) The need to search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments that are separate from the office processing the request.
(2) The need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records that are demanded in a single request.
(3) The need for consultation, which shall be conducted with all practicable speed, with another agency having substantial interest in the determination of the request or among two or more components of the agency having substantial subject matter interest therein.
(4) The need to compile data, to write programming language or a computer program, or to construct a computer report to extract data.
(d) Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.

We have just received yet another robot email, dated 2/28/19, advising us that “we must revise the estimated availability date regarding your attached request, as the requisite review has not yet been completed.”

Our efforts to appeal to UCLA have been unavailing, and our patience is exhausted. We are now appealing to you, as the UC governing body, and to our local law enforcement agencies, the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Los Angeles District Attorney, in an effort to force UCLA to meet its statutory obligations to comply with the California Public Records Act and turn over the requested information without further delay.

Thank you for assistance and your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Joel Bellman
Ethics Committee Chair and Board Member
Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists

Attachments: SPJ/LA CPRA Request 3/5/18
UCLA Response 3/16/18

cc: Strefan Fauble, Deputy City Attorney, Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney
Alan Yochelson, Head Deputy, Public Integrity Division Los Angeles County District
Attorney’s Office