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Florida’s First Amendment Foundation president wins Susan Spencer-Wendel Award for Lifetime Achievement

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Barbara Petersen and Dwayne Robinson

BARBRA PETERSEN, the founding president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, received the Susan Spencer-Wendel Award for Lifetime Achievement. “The First Amendment is under assault unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s critical to our democracy, to our fundamental desire for a free and fair society, that we support and protect a free and independent press, that we demand access to information that allows us to oversee our government and hold it accountable for its actions.” Petersen is pictured here with Dwayne Robinson, chair of The Florida Bar’s Media & Communications Law Committee.

Barbara Petersen, the founding president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation who is retiring after 25 years leading the organization, received the Susan Spencer-Wendel Award for Lifetime Achievement October 28 for her contributions in support of a free press and Floridians’ right to have access to their government.

Petersen accepted the award at the Bar’s Reporters’ Workshop dinner in Tallahassee.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized by those I admire most — journalists and the attorneys who represent and protect them,” said Petersen. “The First Amendment is under assault unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s critical to our democracy, to our fundamental desire for a free and fair society, that we support and protect a free and independent press, that we demand access to information that allows us to oversee our government and hold it accountable for its actions.”

Founded as a nonprofit in 1984 by three news organizations, The First Amendment Foundation seeks to protect and advance the public’s constitutional right to open government by providing education and training, legal aid, and information services. Funding is based on voluntary contributions from various organizations and concerned individuals.

Under Petersen’s leadership, the foundation worked with then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the creation of the Office of Open Government in the Executive Office of the Governor and wrote dozens of friend-of-court briefs supporting citizens and the media, including two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The foundation is a resource for media across the state.

“Twenty-five years ago, when the visionary Miami Herald managing editor Pete Weitzel asked me to run the First Amendment Foundation, I knew then I would be able to spend my legal career pursuing a passion that I find essential to the health and sustainability of democracy in Florida,” said Petersen, who graduated from Florida State University’s College of Law. “The FAF is the only organization in Florida that focuses its energy and resources on protecting the public’s right to oversee its government and hold it accountable to the electorate.”

The Susan Spencer-Wendel Award for Lifetime Achievement recognizes a Florida journalist or a supporter of Florida journalism who helped to educate Floridians on the system of law and justice in the state. Spencer-Wendel was a longtime Palm Beach Post courts reporter who died in 2014 from ALS. She received a lifetime achievement award from The Florida Bar in 2012 and numerous media awards throughout her career.

The award was presented to Petersen by Dwayne Robinson, chair of The Florida Bar’s Media & Communications Law Committee, which created the award and selects the winners. The committee also oversees the Reporters’ Workshop, a two-day event held annually in the fall for 24 print, TV, radio, and online journalists new to the courts and legal beats or new to Florida. Workshop sessions are held at the Florida Supreme Court.

After Petersen’s retirement at the end of the year, Pamela Marsh, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, will become the new president of the First Amendment Foundation.

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