A panel on free speech and government accountability should have included Tim Crews

I was excited to learn that the local daily and the First Amendment Coalition, an important free speech advocacy group, were holding a forum at Chico State, in collaboration with the school’s Journalism & PR Department, on free speech and government accountability (see “Protect and serve,” by Ken Smith, page 10). But when I saw the list of journalists participating in the panel discussion, I immediately noticed that there was a huge—and I mean giant—omission in the local media landscape.

No, not yours truly. I’m talking about Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror. Crews is publisher and editor of that Willows-based publication, but that title isn’t quite befitting of his work. That’s because he also is a dogged practitioner of shoe-leather journalism who regularly files investigative stories on crime and corruption in neighboring Glenn County.

We’ve written about Crews many times over the years, especially as it relates to his efforts to force government to comply with the California Public Records Act and also the Ralph M. Brown Act, the open-meetings law. Two years ago, I visited his office in downtown Willows for a story about his court battle stemming from a request for public documents from the Willows Unified School District. Crews had just come out victorious at the state appellate level in his effort to overturn a Glenn County judge’s order that he pay the school district $56,000. The newspaperman had sued the district for failing to respond to his records request and the local judge found his suit frivolous, ordering him to pay the district’s legal fees. The higher court dismissed Crews’ lawsuit, but didn’t find it frivolous. That meant he didn’t have to pay those fees, and thus could keep publishing the twice-weekly Mirror.

Crews is a hero in journalism circles near and far, and some heavy hitters—including the Los Angeles Times—came to his defense, writing him friend-of-the-court briefs and aiding his legal fund. Speaking to me about Crews’ victory back in 2013, Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, one of his main supporters at the time, noted that the case had larger implications in the realm of public information. “If Tim had lost … it would mean public agencies would have total impunity to stop complying with the law,” he said.

The 71-year-old Crews started the Mirror 24 years ago on a shoestring budget, and continues to operate that way. However, amazingly, investigative reporting based on the gathering of public documents is a hallmark of his work. He has numerous journalism awards to show for it. Among them are the Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award of the California Society of Newspaper Editors (2000) and Hofstra University’s Francis Frost Wood Courage in Journalism Award (2004). Crews spent about a week in jail in 2000 for refusing to reveal the name of a source. He truly is the epitome of a muckraker.

Yet somehow he wasn’t asked to speak at Monday’s forum. With all due respect to the other participants, of anyone in the state who ought to have been invited to this shindig, it’s Crews.