BERKELEY -- Peter Sussman was drawn to journalism by an intense curiosity. "I want to know everything. I want to understand and to explain," Sussman, 72, said in a recent interview in his South Berkeley home.
That same curiosity has also driven Sussman to demand full access to public information. "I am intensely interested in things that come from secret places, the things that we have a right to know" but are denied, he said.
Sussman's lifetime work in journalism -- with 29 years as a San Francisco Chronicle editor and almost two decades as an independent journalist -- and his efforts to uphold the First Amendment will be honored with the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement at the Society of Professional Journalists' James Madison Freedom of Information Awards dinner on March 20 in San Francisco.
Also being honored by SPJ are Peter Buxtun, for exposing to a reporter the evils of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in 1972; The San Quentin News for accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances and editorial writer Daniel Borenstein of the Bay Area News Group for editorials that helped beat back a legislative attack on California's Public Records Act.
Sussman's struggle to uphold the people's right to know and the journalist's right to tell began with Dannie Martin, a bank robber serving time in Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution in Santa Barbara County. In 1986, Martin sent Sussman, then editor of the Chronicle's "Sunday Punch" section, an unsolicited story about AIDS in prison.
This would become the first of some 50 stories in which Martin shared the lives of people locked behind prison walls. Sussman and Martin later co-wrote "Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog."
Through his role publishing Martin's stories, Sussman came to understand the need to defend the First Amendment.
Two years after he began writing for The Chronicle, Martin was placed in "administrative segregation" as a result of a story he'd written about the warden confiscating prisoners' individualized chairs, one of the few unique personal items inmates had been permitted.
Sussman said with Martin's punishment, which he called "a violation of the First Amendment," he began to understand the courage it took for Martin to write.
"He was speaking knowing the risks he was taking," Sussman said. "And I must say I was not aware of it, because it seemed natural to me. This is a public institution. Why can't you write for the public and tell them what's going on there? Naive? That was my uninformed view."
With Sussman's support, Martin, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and The Chronicle, went to court to challenge as unconstitutional the restrictions on inmates' free speech rights. Prisoners were not allowed to write for newspapers under their bylines, could not be compensated for writing for newspapers, and could not act as reporters.
A judge allowed Martin to write under his byline while the lawsuit was pending, but when they lost the case, the judge reinstated the restrictions. To work around that, Sussman began publishing Martin's stories with the byline: "A Federal Prisoner."
Another First Amendment battle Sussman has been fighting since the late 1990s, along with the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the ACLU, is that journalists cannot interview specific state prisoners. Bills they wrote to lift the restrictions were passed by various state legislatures, but vetoed by governors Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.
Sussman said the importance of allowing reporters to interview inmates was evident during the recent prisoner hunger strike in California.
"Prisoners were willing to starve themselves to death if necessary to bring injustices to public attention," Sussman said. "Those prisoners couldn't talk to the press. There were press people who wanted to interview them. Whatever it is that those guys were so angry about that they were willing to stop eating, was an issue derived from administrative decisions, done by the prisons and the governor in our name. All we're talking about is the public's right to know what goes on inside public institutions."
Sussman is also a longtime advocate for "sunshine" in local government, including Berkeley.
"We vote on these politicians," he said. "We have some guiding hand on how these people decide to run our government on our behalf. How can we do that effectively as citizens if we don't have access to the information within the government? If government's keeping secrets from the public, that doesn't seem like the democracy we thought it was. You can't run a government of, by and for the people if the people don't know what's going on."