A little more than a year after breaking his first story about the National Security Agency’s massive data-collection operations, the journalist Glenn Greenwald will be presented Tuesday night with a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, an annual prize given by the Playboy founder’s daughter, Christie. Greenwald could not make it to the ceremony at the Newseum—he’ll be accepting his prize via video—but the six other recipients will be on hand.
Christie Hefner launched the awards in 1979 as part of the Hefner Foundation, which benefits advocates for First Amendment issues. Besides Greenwald, this evening’s awards are also being handed to Norman Dorsen, a longtime constitutional law professor at New York University; Muneer Awad, an attorney who convinced a judge to overturn an anti-Islam amendment to Oklahoma’s state constitution; youth activism advocates Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand; Thomas Healy, the author of a new biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; and Christopher Finan, the author of a recent book on free speech since September 11, 2001.
In a brief interview with Washingtonian before the ceremony, Hefner says she could tell Greenwald’s work for the Guardian and First Look Media was a match for these awards from the get-go, and that while she’s been a longtime supporter of President Obama, his administration’s dependence on the NSA’s widespread eavesdropping programs has shaken her faith.
The answer is probably obvious, but why did you choose people like Glenn Greenwald for this award?
The intent of the awards is to both honor individuals whose work is bringing to life and enhancing First Amendment freedoms, yet at the same time to also shine a spotlight on important issues where that work was needed. In some regards we’ve made great progress over the decades, in others, it’s an ongoing battle. That issue of balance between national security and individual privacy and the public’s right to know what the government is doing is such a critical issue and I think Glenn’s work, as a has obviously been acknowledged, was in the opinion of the judges the most significant thing of the last year.
When his exposés came out last year, was it clear this was the kind of stuff you’re looking for?
Yes, I can say that. One never knows until the end of the year. In many cases, the judges try to find a balance between people like Glenn and people who are probably not known at all. As an example of that in the last year, Muneer Awad, who is in the middle of the country prosecuting this lawsuit to try and stop the institutionalizing the idea of rejecting Sharia law, which is a great example of a solution in search of a problem. Won a very tough court case and has some organizational support, but was very much the driving force himself. I had not been familiar with his work until the nominations were submitted. And now he’s working as a public defender in Macon, Georgia, which is really yeoman’s work.
After 35 years of this, where are we with the First Amendment?
I’m fundamentally an optimist about people and society, so just by nature I see the glass as half full. At the same time, I will say as someone from Chicago who supported President Obama from the beginning, there was a lot of hope that electing a former constitutional lawyer to the White House was going to move us forward by leaps and bounds. While I think there are certain things that have been done in that regard, you can look at the amounts of data that the government is keeping secret or the threats against journalists that we’re certainly not living in an ideal time.
The President occasionally says this is the most transparent administration in history. It doesn’t always feel that way, does it?
No. In some ways I think there’s an effort to make technology accessible, whether it’s following the money from the original TARP or information about where government projects are. At the same time, you still see journalists and citizens having to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get information out of the government. It’s not what any of us would call having achieved the ideal.
You named these awards after your dad. He’s been on the forefront of First Amendment issues for more than 50 years.
When we started them, it was part of the 25th anniversary of the magazine we launched here in Washington at the National Press Club to honor things the magazine believed in. One of the reasons I was inclined to name it after him—which he was, candidly, not thrilled with—was because while he had personally done a lot in editorializing in support of the First Amendment or bringing cases on issues that affected Playboy, he has been very active beyond where there was self-interest. A longtime funder of the Student Press Law Center, an amicus brief filer in a lot of suits that did not directly affect Playboy. He and the editors and lawyers at Playboy understood that it is all of a piece.