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Marion Brechner, FOI advocate and benefactor, dies at 98

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Marion B. Brechner, a long-time member of the broadcasting community and philanthropist who dedicated much of her life to press…

Marion B. Brechner, a long-time member of the broadcasting community and philanthropist who dedicated much of her life to press freedom issues, died Thursday at the age of 98.

Brechner will be remembered largely for the University of Florida's Joesph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information that she and her husband established with a $1 million endowment in 1985. In addition, Brechner funded other projects at the university including the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project, a research initiative dedicated to comparing and rating the relative openness of state open records and meetings laws, and the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project. Brechner also established the Joseph and Marion Brechner Fund for Jewish Cultural Reporting in Amherst, Mass., and the Joseph L. Brechner Fellowship Program at the Anti-Defamation League.

Marion and her husband first entered journalism soon after World War II when they started a radio station, WGAY, in Silver Spring, Md. By 1959, the Brechners expanded their growing media holdings to include television broadcast stations when WFTV-TV, formerly WLOF-TV, went on the air in Orlando, Fla. In the mid-1980s, the Brechners sold the station to Cox Communications and started their own media company, Brechner Management Group, now under the direction of Brechner's son, Berl. The company owns television stations in Maryland and Kansas and radio stations in Ohio. Marion Brechner served as president of the company after her husband's death in 1990.

Through the Brechner Center and the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, Brechner established a legacy dedicated to promoting freedom of information and to education, Dr. Bill Chamberlin, former executive director of the center, said. The Brechner Center has helped educate thousands of journalists, lawyers and public officials on freedom of information, according to Chamberlin. Students educated at the Brechner Center and the Citizen Access Project are not only working in the field, they're educating the future of the media law and freedom of information law field at other leading universities including the University of Arizona, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Syracuse University, Chamberlin said.

"She is known nationally as one of the most significant contributors to freedom of information in the country," Chamberlin said. "We have lost one of the most important patrons of freedom of information in the country."

"She and [her husband] Joe believed strongly that freedom of information is the cornerstone of democracy and that it is critical that there be organizations that fight to make government documents public," he added. "We can only hope to find others that have the same commitment she did."

Counted among the Brechner Center's alumni is media lawyer Chuck Tobin, one of the first law students to study at the center. The influence of the Brechner Center is one that will last for generations, Tobin said. "The ripple effects of Mrs. Brechner's generosity are being felt across the country as students go out and improve government access with their training from the center."

Tobin credits the center with providing him with a solid background in freedom of information law, a subject in which he works daily.

Before coming to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Information Director Mark Caramanica had served as director of the Citizen Access Project. "It was Marion's generosity that enabled me and many others to complete our graduate studies in media law at the University of Florida and work with exceptional mentors like Bill Chamberlin. Marion was always interested to hear about what Brechner alums were doing in the media field after graduating from UF and took great pride in their accomplishments," he said.

Sandra Chance, the executive director of the Brechner Center, worked with Brechner for the last 18 years. While Brechner did not work in the day-to-day dealings of the center, Chance said the center would not be possible without the Brechner family's generous funding and support, adding that the center feels "a tremendous personal loss."

"Freedom of information advocates and the access community lost one of its heroes yesterday," Chance said. "[Brechner] was a fearless advocate of journalism and felt very strongly about freedom of information education."

Moving forward, "[Marion Brechner's] commitment to journalism and an informed electorate will guide us we continue to educate, promote and foster open government and a participatory democracy," Chance said.

Services for Brechner will be held at the Temple Israel Cemetery in Orlando on Monday. Those wishing to make a donation in her name are asked to send them to the Congregation Beth Shalom of Orange City, Jewish Progressive Conservative Synagogue, P.O. Box 740414, Orange City, Fla., 32774.