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AP among First Amendment award winners

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JENNIFER C. KERR | March 12, 2014 04:44 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Radio Television Digital News Foundation is presenting its First Amendment Award to The Associated Press for defending press freedoms against secret government subpoenas for reporters' phone calls.

Journalists for Gannett, NBC, ABC and CBS were also cited by the foundation for their efforts to protect a free press.

The AP was selected as the 2014 winner of the foundation's First Amendment Award, which honors an individual or organization that champions the First Amendment and press freedoms.

"The board was impressed with the way The Associated Press handled itself and fought for its reporters after discovering that the Department of Justice had acquired the phone records of some of its reporters," said Vincent Duffy, chairman of the foundation. "RTDNF believes that the free press rights enjoyed in our industry can only be maintained when organizations like The Associated Press are willing to fight to keep them."

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, formerly a First Amendment attorney, was accepting the award Wednesday night at a foundation dinner.

Pruitt was highly critical of the Justice Department after learning that the DOJ secretly subpoenaed two months' worth of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by AP reporters and editors. The Obama administration was trying to find out who leaked information for a May 2012 story about a foiled plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.

Pruitt called the records' seizure "overbroad, sloppy and a fishing expedition" — and an attack on a free press.

Last month, the Justice Department announced that it was revising its rules for obtaining records from the news media in leak investigations. In most cases, the Justice Department said, the government would notify news organizations beforehand of its intention to demand documents, so media companies could challenge any subpoena or warrant in court if needed.

The new rule, which took effect Feb. 27, would allow exceptions should the attorney general determine that notice would threaten an investigation, harm national security or present risk of death or serious injury to someone.

Also being honored this year by the foundation:

—Gannett's David Lougee, president of the company's broadcasting division. Lougee received a First Amendment Leadership Award.

—NBC anchor and correspondent Lester Holt, who received the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award, named for the late Broadcasting & Cable senior correspondent, Leonard Zeidenberg.

—ABC Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul, who received the First Amendment Service Award.

—CBS' Bill Plante, veteran White House correspondent, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Radio Television Digital News Foundation — the educational arm of the Radio Television Digital News Association — provides training programs, seminars and journalism workshops.