The Associated Press has been awarded the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award for its fight to protect press freedom against secret U.S. government subpoenas of reporters’ phone records.

Presented by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists' educational foundation, the award and its $10,000 prize recognize a person or organization that has fought to protect and preserve one or more of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is given in memory of Eugene S. Pulliam, publisher of The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News from 1975 until his death in 1999. He was a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. AP also won the award in 2011 for its work uncovering documents of public interest.

In May 2013, AP was notified that the Justice Department had secretly seized 21 AP phone lines over a two-month period. For up to three months before notifying AP, prosecutors had been going through lists of phone calls and text message logs that AP journalists had exchanged with sources, confidential and otherwise.

Since then, AP has been fighting to protect news organizations and journalists from the government’s seizure of phone records without their knowledge. The news agency has fought to strengthen the media’s role as a governmental check, and has made strides in preserving the rights guaranteed within the First Amendment.

"If reporters’ phone calls are now open territory for the government to monitor, then news sources will be intimidated from talking to reporters,” AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a speech to the National Press Club last year. “Nonofficial news sources are critical to a free press and to holding government accountable. Otherwise, the public will know only what the government wants it to know. This is hardly what the framers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.”

AP’s efforts resulted in the Justice Department’s finalizing new federal rules last February that restrict the government’s use of subpoenas and search warrants to obtain records from journalists. The AP, along with other media organizations, continues to champion the approval of a federal shield law for journalists to be able to legally protect the confidentiality of their sources.

The Pulliam First Amendment committee wrote in its decision: “It rises high on the level of importance to the health of the First Amendment. There are a lot of problems out there involving smaller news organizations and smaller governments, but what happens in Washington can set the tone for a lot of those smaller attempts to muzzle the press. And in the unprecedented era of government spying broadly on the public, spying on the public’s watchdog raises the threat to a free and independent news media to an even higher level. We wish the case had a stronger resolution. But rewarding the AP for its effort serves to refocus attention on this horrible incident and perhaps send notice that journalists haven't forgotten.”

The organization will be honored Sept. 6 during the Excellence in Journalism 2014 conference in Nashville, Tenn. The conference is co-hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association.

The AP will donate the prize money to the AP Emergency Relief Fund, which helps AP staffers who have suffered damage or losses as a result of conflict or natural disasters.

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