- What is Californians Aware?
- What is public forum law?
- Why the phrase “public forum?”
- What trends threaten public forums?
- What does Californians Aware propose to do about these trends?
- Isn’t this role already fulfilled by other groups?
- What can Californians Aware do for me?
What is Californians Aware?
It’s a nonprofit organization established to help journalists and others keep Californians aware of what they need to know to hold government and other powerful institutions accountable for their actions. Its mission is to support and defend open government, an enquiring press and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions on public issues. In short, Californians Aware will be a center for information, guidance and initiatives in public forum law.
What is public forum law?
Public forum law deals with people’s rights to find out what citizens need to know to be truly self-governing, and to share what they know and believe without fear or loss.
These rights are complementary. Open meetings and public records laws keep information about civic issues freely available. Protections for journalists, activists, whistleblowers and others striving to keep the community armed with the facts and their implications complete the circle of law that it takes to keep Californians aware.
After all, ready access to government meetings and files means little if no one dares report or comment on what they learn. And people willing to take a stand and speak out are easily disabled and discredited if the facts and discussions that advance government and other powerful institutions are sealed away from their discovery.
Why the phrase “public forum?”
A public forum is a commons for communication—a space where speech on matters of importance to the community is expected and protected. Many public forums are in the public space literally: streets, parks and plazas where citizens interact, informing and persuading one another. Many others are provided by government: official meetings of local and state bodies where citizens address their elected or appointed public servants, on the record.
Still others are privately owned sectors opened by tradition or law to some civic discourse: newspaper editorial pages, radio talk shows and certain large shopping malls where patrons are encouraged to congregate without having to buy. The most dynamic public forum is the newest — in some spaces private but in many others welcoming news, views and discussion — the Internet.
What trends threaten public forums?
- Excessive official secrecy: A public starved of the facts that are staples of speech.
- Intimidation or retaliation: Too high a price placed on inquiry, reporting or comment.
- Eroding opportunity: Dwindling space or time for expected and protected speech.
What does Californians Aware propose to do about these trends?
We propose to offer resources to fight them, and to do so without partisanship or ideology. Our only agenda is to allow others’ agendas, however tentative or unpopular at the moment, to be offered and debated for whatever support they may attract.
The challenge has three levels:
- Encouraging the improvement of public forum law in the Legislature and the courts.
- Promoting better practices and better observance of the law by public agencies.
- Assuring that citizens know their rights and protections and how to use them confidently.
Isn’t this role already fulfilled by other groups?
Fortunately, our cause is not a new or unique one; if it were, democracy would be in a sorry state indeed. But each of the existing groups fostering rights under public forum law has a distinctive focus or strategy that Californians Aware will complement.
- The oldest and most accomplished by far, the American Civil Liberties Union, is so well known that it must pick its battles highly selectively and simply cannot engage in the grass-roots education and training we propose to offer both citizens and public officials.
- The California Newspaper Publishers Association, second to none in its careful eye on — and resistance to — excessive secrecy laws and other obstacles to a free press, has a primary charter to advance the interests of newspaper journalism in particular.
- The First Amendment Project focuses on litigation, primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, and claims a core constituency of journalists, activists and artists.
- And the California First Amendment Coalition, closest in focus and approach to our own, has yet to include in its governing structure the full partnership of supportive public servants that we believe indispensable to keeping Californians aware.
There is always room for one more, especially as we face the complex of secrecy, intimidation and eroding opportunities for effective speech that has descended on our lives so incrementally—and yet so powerfully.
What can Californians Awaredo for me?
- Work to preserve and extend your liberties and protections before your speech or civic action puts them into play.
- When you do need it, provide information and experienced guidance on how to deal with forces striving to keep you in the dark, keep you silent or keep you excluded from a public forum.
- If, finally, suing or defending a suit is the only option, help you find a lawyer experienced in public forum law.
Specifically, we can help if you are:
- A reporter kept from a news scene, a government file or a court proceeding or document on grounds that may or may not reflect the law, or facing legal risks or threats in pursuing a story.
- A parent kept from addressing the school board or denied access to relevant information about what the district did or plans to do.
- A taxpayer who can’t get answers about how public funds were spent or who played a role in changing or bending the rules that affect your home or business.
- A teacher threatened with reprisal for speaking your mind, or a student newspaper editor told you have to kill a story.
- A petition signature gatherer or activist pamphleteer prevented from approaching fellow citizens door to door, on the street or in a shopping complex.
- A condominium owner who wants to get messages to neighbors about how the homeowners’ association is being run — messages embarrassing to the management.
- A college student kept out of meetings of student government that decide how your fees are spent or other important campus issues.
- A neighborhood organizer warned to stop criticizing a project development or face a bankrupting lawsuit.
- An elected board or council member warned to stop asking inconvenient questions at public meetings, or questioning staff about a constituent’s neglected concerns.
- A watchdog ordered to stop videotaping the meeting of a public body.