LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 24, 2023) — The 2023 James Madison Award recipient for service to the First Amendment is Michael (“Mike”) Abate, a preeminent First Amendment advocate, defender of government transparency and litigator with Kaplan, Johnson, Abate & Bird in Louisville. The School of Journalism and Media and its Scripps Howard First Amendment Center present the award annually.
Abate earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University and his juris doctor from Stanford Law School. He has worked with journalists from numerous news organizations and groups since moving to Kentucky from Washington, D.C., 10 years ago, including the Courier Journal, Louisville Public Media and the Kentucky Press Association, which he is representing alongside prominent First Amendment lawyer Jon L. Fleischaker.
“We started by working together in the trial court and Court of Appeals in the important and hotly contested case involving access to records in serious abuse cases from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. This was just the start of our productive partnership. Mike played an important part in many other cases representing various media outlets,” Fleischaker said.
Additional cases that have illustrated Abate’s consistent and unrelenting commitment to government transparency include ongoing efforts to:
- acquire records regarding the Explorer sexual abuse scandal in Louisville;
- uncover the City of Louisville’s $2 billion proposal for a second Amazon headquarters;
- unseal court records in Pikeville involving Purdue Pharma’s sales of drugs that resulted in a multimillion-dollar settlement with Kentucky;
- compel the administration of former Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, to disclose the names of owners of Braidy Industries, which received substantial public investment;
- demonstrate that the City of Danville violated the Open Meetings Act by secretly using over $1 million in public funds to bid on the purchase of a warehouse; and
- quash a subpoena issued to a news organization for unaired footage of an interview with a source.
Most recently, Abate has led the following efforts on numerous First Amendment and Open Records issues in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, including to:
- compel the Labor Cabinet, Finance Cabinet and Cabinet for Health and Family Services to disclose the names of public officials who were accused of sexual misconduct on the job — winning sanctions against the Commonwealth in each case for willful violations of the Open Records Act (ORA);
- compel the Office of Technology to disclose the names of members and minutes from the Technology Advisory Council — an interagency committee that met secretly to set public policy;
- pursue and acquire records related to the Breonna Taylor investigation by Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD), which were later leaked to the media;
- obtain an injunction against the Louisville Metro Council and the Louisville mayor, preventing them from holding secret meetings related to the Breonna Taylor investigation and the city’s COVID response;
- oppose the sealing of court records and proceedings in the trial of Brett Hankison, one of the officers charged in the Breonna Taylor investigation;
- obtain a court order opening hearings and records related to the trial of the Marshall County High School shooting case;
- combat grand jury subpoenas for newspaper publishers seeking to compel disclosure of a pseudonymous author critical of local authorities;
- obtain access to texts and emails sent by public officers and employees on allegedly personal accounts or devices;
- investigate the misuse of the ORA’s exceptions by law enforcement agencies to withhold records related to allegedly ongoing investigations;
- overturn a federal district court decision that could compel newspapers to pay commercial requester rates; and
- fight for requests of public records from the administration of former Louisville mayor, Greg Fischer, prompting increased staff in the mayor’s office and timely responses to subsequent records requests. Abate pursued and “successfully resolved” this case, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Deborah Yetter said.
In addition to this plethora of achievements, Abate has represented media organizations and private citizens in several important defamation cases, including multiple lawsuits challenging:
- media coverage of the incident between Covington Catholic students and Native American marchers on the national mall;
- media coverage of criminal charges and trials;
- social media posts about suspected misconduct by police officers and public officials; and
- political speech by candidates running for public office and their supporters.
“In addition, Mike has represented the KPA to lobby for — and often against — legislation that would impact transparency in Frankfort, including bills that would have created felony penalties for publishing routine information about public officials and employees.
“Mike also fought other First Amendment and transparency battles. For example, he represented citizens challenging their blocking on social media by Gov. Bevin for comments critical of his viewpoint or policies, leading to a new policy adopted by the Beshear administration respecting content neutrality. He also represented voters seeking access to the right to vote by mail during the COVID pandemic, leading to a settlement that allowed widespread mail-in voting. And he successfully represented various citizens requesting records from the Office of Governor Bevin that showed his communications with the Trump administration while in office,” Fleischaker said.
Al Cross, director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, said, “Mike has always responded favorably to my requests to appear on panels” for the Society of Professional Journalists.”
The James Madison Award is scheduled to be presented at the Scripps Howard State of the First Amendment Address, delivered by the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and affiliated professor at the University of Oregon Law School, Kyu Ho Youm, 5:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Nov. 2, in the Grand Courtroom of the University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law. This year’s address will focus on free speech and defamation in the global century. Details of the event are posted at https://ci.uky.edu/jam/state-first-amendment-address.
The James Madison Award is presented annually by the School of Journalism and Media in the College of Communication and Information to honor those who have made outstanding contributions to First Amendment rights. The award was created in 2006 and honors the nation’s fourth president, whose extraordinary efforts led to the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Awardees must have significant ties to Kentucky, and their efforts must have resulted in the preservation or expansion of freedom of the press and/or freedom of speech. The James Madison Award recognizes a long-term commitment to these ideals.
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