College newspaper and high school editor receive Scholastic Press Freedom Award

Nick Edwards, a former editor of the Stinger at Camarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif., and the staff of the Muleskinner, the student newspaper at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg received the awards in November.

The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association/Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a high school and a college student journalist or student news medium that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.

Edwardsí effort began after the principal at neighboring Rio Mesa High School censored stories about teen pregnancy from the pages of that schoolís student newspaper, The Spartan, last March. Edwards contacted The Spartan's staff and offered his support.

Over the next few weeks, Edwards took up the cause of student press freedom. After researching the subject, Edwards wrote a news story for his paper and published the censored story from The Spartan in the pages of his newspaper, the Stinger. According to Edwards, the community needed to understand how journalistically solid the censored story was, and they would not know that if they could not read it.

From that point on, the effort to censor focused as much on Nick Edwards as it had on the newspaper at Rio Mesa. As Edwards later said, he spent more time in the principal's office that week than "the criminal element on campus." When the superintendent threatened Edwards with punishment, he explained why he had to do what he had to do: student press rights and the law of California had been violated and the community deserved complete coverage of the issue.

Ultimately, the Stinger published a front-page news story about the censorship and inside it published the censored article along with an editorial in support of press freedom.

SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said he believes that Edwardsí courage in standing up for the rights of The Spartan is remarkable.

"Nick was willing to risk his own press freedom in defense of the press freedom of others," said Goodman. "The integrity demonstrated by his words and deeds are a source of inspiration to anyone who believes in the cause of freedom."

The Muleskinner's battle started after it sought access to the contract that the CMSU Board of Governors signed with Ed Elliott, the schoolís retiring president.

Their research revealed that Elliot was to be paid $621,000 over three years after his retirement. The severance contract also provided Elliott with a package of benefits that the Missouri state auditor ultimately described as "excessive."

As the Muleskinner staff dug into the story, university officials denounced student reporters, threatened their adviser and refused to answer questions. The Muleskinner's published editorials emphasizing the importance of free expression for all students on campus.

Based on the Muleskinner's coverage, the state auditor examined CMSUís records and found a number of "improper compensation and perquisites" in Elliottís contract.  Shortly after the story about the presidentís contract broke, university officials told the Muleskinner's adviser that it would not be renewing her contract for the 2000-2001 school year.

Goodman commended the newspaper's tenacity and commitment to providing its readers with a full and accurate story -- even when it became apparent that some school officials would do what they could to block their efforts.

"There are few stories more important to the public than those uncovering the abuse of public funds," said Goodman. "The Muleskinner reminds us all of the vital role played by a strong and independent press."

reports, Winter 2000-01