Barbara Petersen, 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 Monday for her contributions in support of a free press and Floridians’ right to have access to their government.
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.
Petersen accepted the award at the 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.
The inaugural award was presented in 2015 to longtime St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) columnist Martin Dyckman. In 2016, the award was presented posthumously to veteran journalist Julie Kay, who covered the courts and law in Florida for nearly 30 years including at the Daily Business Review.
The award was presented to Petersen on Monday 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.