NJ-SPJ Courage Under Fire winner feted at awards brunch

NEWARK  — In accepting his Courage Under Fire Award from NJ-SPJ, Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea said he at times compared the protracted legal battle over a prior restraint order to the TV series “Batman and Robin,” with him as Robin and his attorney, Bruce Rosen, of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, as the “Caped Crusader.”

Rosen, who served as keynote speaker for the June 25 Excellence in Journalism brunch, told the audience that he found himself having to adapt to Avilucea’s social media style, as the 28-year-old kept the public constantly apprised of his views of the legal machinations via Tweets and Facebook postings. Rosen, a former journalist himself, found that problematic in trying to keep his legal strategies close to the vest.

In the end, “Batman” and “Robin” prevailed when, in March, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence DeBello threw out the prior restraint order, which had stood for five months. (Last week, Avilucea put the state on notice that he is planning to sue the state for malicious prosecution and defaming him in court. For more on that, click here.)

“I’m a very transparent person,” explained Avilucea. “Nothing should be locked down,” alluding to the case, in which the state Attorney General’s office sought a prior restraint order. Throughout the ordeal, Avilucea said he felt an obligation that if he allowed his rights to be “disenfranchised” every journalist in the state would have to live with what would have become a precedent-setting prior restraint.

He thanked Trentonian editor John Berry and several colleagues, then moved on to the other battle he was waging simultaneously; the one for his life. Avilucea is receiving chemo and other transfusions to fight testicular cancer. He was diagnosed and treated for cancer in 2014, but it returned, affecting also his lymph nodes, lungs and vital organs. “I planned on winning both fights through sheer strength,” he said. The outcome is positive there, too, with cancer markers down and some normalized, he reported.

“This prior restraint fight I thought was going to be my legacy,” Avilucea recalled. “And I didn’t want my legacy to be that of a Benedict Arnold, a traitor, someone who sold out journalism, not just for myself but for other reporters across the state.”

NJ-SPJ also awarded Courage Under Fire Certificates of Merit to Rosen and Avilucea’s Trentonian colleagues: editor John Berry and reporters Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, David Foster, and Penny Ray.

A Go Fund Me page, established to cover Avilucea’s medical expenses, can be found here.

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