Press Club Names Hee Winner of Lava Tube Award
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by Dave Smith
The Big Island Press Club has named state Sen. Clayton Hee this year’s recipient of the Lava Tube Award for his efforts that will result in the expiration this year of Hawaii’s “shield law” for journalists.
For the past 16 years, the press club has bestowed the award to the group or individual in Hawaii which it feels has done the most to inhibit the public’s right to access information.
The Hawaii shield law, which protected news reporters’ sources and unpublished notes, was considered a model in the nation.
“Reporters consider a shield law crucial in encouraging news sources to provide public-interest information that newsmakers may want to keep secret,” BIPC President Yisa Var said in a press release issued this week.
First passed in 2008, and extended for another two years in 2011, the shield law was the subject of a bill this past session that – under the recommendation of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s Committee on the Rules of Evidence – would have made it permanent.
However, significant changes were made to the bill after it moved to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor which Hee chairs.
Among the changes Hee pushed – which included requesting committee members vote on a version they had not seen – was to remove from its protection non-traditional journalists such as those using digital or online-only media.
The press club noted that Hee attempted to justify the changes to the law by referring to the “Dewey defeats Truman” headline error printed in 1948 by the Chicago Tribune which proved that reporters weren’t always right.
The press club responded by noting that the example was more than six decades out of date and had nothing to do with confidential sources.
First Amendment advocates were quick to condemn Hee’s version of the bill, saying that no law would be better than the weakened one.
But the provisions of the Senate draft were maintained in the version subsequently approved by a joint House-Senate conference committee co-chaired by Hee.
When it came up for a final vote, the House put forward a floor amendment that would have extended the existing law for another two years which was passed unanimously.
Two days later, the Senate voted 16-9 to ignore the House’s version, which meant the bill was dead for the session and the shield law would expire at the end of June.
In other actions, the press club honored the late Helene Hale with its Torch of Light Award, given annually to those considered to have advanced the public’s “right to know.”
Hale, who died Feb. 1 at the age of 94, had served in a variety of county and state government offices for the past five decades.
“Helene was consistently sharing with reporters and other voters the ‘whys’ of her behavior and, by extension, that of her colleagues,” said Hugh Clark, a former Honolulu Advertiser reporter and BIPC member. “Hale was invariably an open person who eschewed back-room dealing. She was typically forthcoming.”
Hale was also a member of the press club for more than four decades.
The BIPC has been handing out the Lava Tube and Torch of Light awards since 1997.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano has the distinction of being the only person to win both the Lava Tube and Torch of Light awards, in 1998 and 2000, respectively.
The Hawaii County Council has won a Lava Tube four times.
The press club traditionally gives out the awards on March 16, which is Freedom of Information Day and also the birthday of James Madison, one of the authors of the US Constitution and one of the nation’s most ardent advocates for government openness.
However, because of the importance of the shield law, and the potential for it not being extended, the press club said this year it waited for the legislative session to end before choosing its awards.
The press club said its previous Lava Tube Award “dishonorees” are:
- 2011 Governor Neil Abercrombie
- 2010 Hawaii County Council
- 2009 Noelani Whittington, county Department of Public Works
- 2008 Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii County Council
- 2007 State Board of Education
- 2006 Honolulu, Kauai, and Hawaii County Councils
- 2005 District Judge Matthew S.K. Pyun
- 2004 State Land Board Chairman Peter Young
- 2003 State Sen. Cal Kawamoto
- 2002 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
- 2001 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
- 2000 State Rep. Eric Hamakawa and Hawaii County Councilman James Arakaki
- 1999 Hawaii County Council
- 1998 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
- 1997 Hawaii County Councilman Elroy Osorio
Disclosure: Big Island Now News Editor Dave Smith is a member and two-time past president of the Big Island Press Club.