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Miami Court Reporter Selected for Pulliam First Amendment Award


Georgiana Vines, Chair, Grants and Awards Committee, Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, 865/342-6343 or vines@knews.com
Sue Porter, President, Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, 513/977-3030 or porters@scripps.com
Joyce Dobson, Development Director, Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, 317/927-8000 ext. 213 or jdobson@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- Dan Christensen of the Miami Daily Business Review will receive the 2004 Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award for reporting on secret court cases in the U.S. District Court in Miami.

“Dan Christensen’s work on behalf of the First Amendment is an excellent example of one journalist’s dedication to exposing secrecy that is becoming all too common,” said Georgiana Vines, chair of a five-member panel of judges and 1992-93 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “This was a form of secrecy that hid everything, including the case number.”

The $10,000 award presented by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation honors Pulliam, who was publisher of The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News at the time of his death in 1999. The Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award was established to honor Pulliam’s name, work and First Amendment legacy. He was well-known for consistently supporting activities which educated the public about First Amendment rights and values. The award will be presented during the closing banquet at the annual SPJ National Convention in New York City on Sept. 11.

The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation is the fund-raising and educational arm of SPJ.

In March 2003, Christensen broke the story of Mohamed K. Bellahouel, an Algerian-born U.S. resident who was detained secretly for five months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“At a time when there is growing secrecy in government as a result of the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts, the judges felt Dan Christensen stood out for his efforts in attracting national attention to the Bellahouel case and court secrecy in general,” said Vines, associate editor of The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel

He was tipped to the secret case with a clue in the daily calendar of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Miami. He made phone calls and then showed up at a hearing only to be told he could not attend. Christensen eventually realized that the entire case was taking place in the U.S. District Court in Miami.

Bellahouel had been detained for overstaying his student visa after FBI agents learned he had worked as a waiter at a restaurant in Delray Beach patronized by some of the al Qaeda hijackers, and he was accused of accompanying one of them to a nearby movie. He was released after authorities apparently concluded he wasn’t a threat.

Bellahouel filed a writ of habeas corpus to seek release, and that action continued as he sought to open his case to the public. He eventually filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, though the pleadings were heavily redacted and the case was listed only as “M.K.B. v. Warden” on the high court’s docket.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, nominated Christensen for the Pulliam First Amendment Award.

Dalglish said that to her organization’s knowledge, “no other case filed with the Supreme Court has been handled with such excessive secrecy. Only through Christensen’s reporting did the public have any idea what the case was about.”

The Reporters Committee and 22 other organizations sought to intervene in the case. When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Bellahouel’s petition, the court denied the request to intervene. Then in February, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta allowed the case to be listed on the court’s public docket although much of the case remained under seal.

Christensen, who writes a weekly news column along with covering federal courts for the Miami Daily Business Review, wrote that it was a mystery why the Circuit Court chose to publicly docket the case after the Supreme Court refused to review it. Christensen reported that the docketing of the case and 11th Circuit’s public statement of Bellahouel’s name was a “tacit acknowledgement that the court had used a secrecy practice it supposedly outlawed” in a previous ruling.

Christensen also was the first to report on secretive practices in another case in Miami federal court, United States vs. Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez. Federal prosecutors had filed a set of indictments against reputed Columbian drug traffickers as part of “Operation Millennium.” Christensen discovered that at least one defendant in the alleged conspiracy, Nicholas Bergonzoli, had been prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned in total secrecy.

Christensen’s reporting gained the attention of media and public interest organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Florida Association of Trial Lawyers and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Each has filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the U.S. Court of Appeals in Miami to declare unconstitutional the secretive practices that Christensen had documented. That appeal is pending.

Before joining the Review in 1989, Christensen was a reporter at The Miami News. Earlier, he was a staff writer at what is today the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Christensen grew up in Hillsdale, N.J., and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

Christensen’s nomination was selected from a field of 34 entries.

Vines chaired the judging committee in her role as chair of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation’s grants and awards committee. Other judges were Russell B. Pulliam, Pulliam’s son and associate editor of The Indianapolis Star; Ken Bunting, executive editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Kelly Hawes, 1995-96 SPJ national president who lives in Lake Jackson, Texas; and Charles Davis, co-chair and executive director, Freedom of Information Center, and associate professor, news-editorial, Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.

Founded in 1961, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) public foundation that is dedicated to ensuring that those who carry on the tradition of a free press are prepared for the challenge. Its goal is to support the educational programs of the Society of Professional Journalists and to serve the professional needs of journalists and students pursuing careers in journalism.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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