Mo. newspaper, Minn. editor receive press freedom award





A high school student newspaper and a former college newspaper editor have been named winners of the 1996 Scholastic Press Freedom Award.
The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association/Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to the high school or college student journalist or student news medium that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.

This year’s winners were Michele Ames, former editor of The Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, and the staff of the Jaguar Journal at Blue Springs South High School in Blue Springs, Mo.

Ames story began in 1993 when a photographer for the Minnesota Daily shot photos of a fight that broke out at a neo-Nazi rally on campus. Police charged several individuals involved in the incident with crimes ranging from assault to weapons violations.

The prosecutor asked the Daily for its unpublished photos of the incident. The paper refused, saying it was not appropriate for it to serve as an investigative arm for the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor subpoenaed the editors of the paper to force them to turn over the photos. The editors contested that subpoena, eventually taking their case through the state court system twice.

On Jan. 29, 1996, the court case ended with a ruling that there was no reporter’s privilege that protected the Daily from the subpoena. The court ordered Ames, the 1995-96 editor of the newspaper, to turn over the unpublished photos.

Despite the fact that she could have been sent to jail for her refusal and that she and her newspaper could have been subjected to crippling fines, she, in her words, “respectfully declined” to comply with the order.

“We can’t turn our presses over to the county attorney,” she said.

SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said that Ames received the award because she was an exceptional role model.

“For her dedication to her readers, for her firm belief that the press should not take on the role of investigator for either side in a court case, and for her grace under pressure that few of us have ever faced, Michele Ames richly deserved this award,” said Goodman.

The high school award winner’s story began last spring when the staff of the Jaguar Journal decided to cover the issue of smoking. One topic they focused on was the ability of minors to obtain cigarettes illegally.

The Jaguar Journal staff decided to see how easy it was for underage students to buy cigarettes. With the permission of the local police department, they attempted to make purchases at several local stores and found that two prominent businesses in fact did sell cigarettes to them. When they prepared a story about their investigation, school officials refused to allow them to publish the names of the stores who broke the law.

The staff members called the SPLC to describe their situation and get advice. They let school officials know they objected to the censorship and would contest it. And over a weekend, they prepared and distributed a press release to the local media describing their story and the censorship they were fighting.

Under the weight of growing community pressure, the school backed down. When a local newspaper published the names of the two stores, the school allowed the students to do so as well.

Goodman described the students’ success as an outstanding effort.

“They knew that good journalism requires hard work and preparation, that censorship is wrong and must be resisted and that violations of the law and the health and safety of students are more important than maintaining a good relationship with local businesses,” said Goodman. “They enlisted the community in their fight for press freedom, and the community told the school the censorship must stop.”


reports, Winter 1996-97