INDIANAPOLIS — The Hoosier State Press Association last week presented its annual Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award to Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller for his action to protect First Amendment rights in a legal dispute over public records last year.
The South Bend Tribune nominated Zoeller for the Sunshine Award in recognition of his removing an obstacle to the newspaper’s publication of an article based on information it obtained from a public record, the state media organization said in a press release.
In March 2012, a court injunction had blocked the newspaper from publishing an audiotape of a call received by a Department of Child Services hotline where a caller had reported child abuse.
Concluding that prior restraint would violate freedom of the press, Zoeller intervened in the lawsuit and withdrew the state from further appellate litigation in the dispute over the audio recording, meaning the newspaper could resume publication of its story about the recorded call.
“The Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award honors public servants and citizens who understand that our government should be transparent to the people it serves. I commend Attorney General Zoeller for his commitment to using his post to protect public access when his colleagues in state government wanted to restrict it. Newspapers and all citizens have a friend in public servants like Zoeller,” said Steve Key, the press association’s executive director and general counsel.
As attorney general, Zoeller has been an advocate for transparency through raising awareness of the Indiana Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act, according to the press release.
In 2011 and 2012, Zoeller’s office partnered with the HSPA, several newspapers and the Public Access Counselor’s Office to hold a series of free public access seminars across Indiana. The training seminars, which counted as free continuing legal education for attorneys, were attended by elected officials, government employees and citizens, and focused on educating the public about their right to open government.
“It is the responsibility of those of us in government to strive every day to earn the public's trust; but history has shown that the public should never fully trust government. Essential to the fundamental relationship between the people and their government is a free press and open, accessible information from officials and agencies. My obligation to defend the actions of state government is second only to my oath to defend the Constitution,” Zoeller said.
Each year since 2005 the HSPA has recognized private citizens and public servants who promote the cause of open government. The Sunshine Award is named for former Governor Frank O’Bannon, who was a longtime newspaper publisher in Corydon and established the Public Access Counselor as a separate state agency during his administration. Until that time, the public access advisory opinion duties had been a part of the Attorney General’s Office.
The Sunshine award was presented Thursday during the HSPA’s annual legislative luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis. In addition to Zoeller, the HSPA presented the Sunshine award to Jane Neulieb, a town council member from Long Beach, Ind.
Founded in 1933, HSPA represents nearly all daily and weekly paid circulation newspapers in Indiana.
— Hoosier State Press Association