Profiles in courage

Each year, in an effort to recognize some of those efforts, the SPLC and the National Scholastic Press Association give out the Courage in Student Journalism Award, which is endowed by the Kent State University Center for Scholastic Journalism. This year's winners, Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler in the student category and Barb Thill in the educator category, were saluted as outstanding examples of bravery and dedication in standing up for freedom of the student press. 

Barb Thill -- Adviser chilled

This year, the educator's Courage in Student Journalism Award was given to Barb Thill, former adviser to The Statesman, the student newspaper at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., for her efforts promoting journalism despite intimidation and chilling action from the school's administration.

The Statesman -- and Thill specifically -- came under fire in January 2009 after publishing a package of stories about students "hooking up." The stories dealt with the prevalence of casual relationships among teens and some of the consequences, as well as cautionary quotes from health professionals.

Thill said the publication immediately caused an "uproar" at the school as a result of a number of calls to school administrators from a local conservative organization.

After the community response, the paper was immediately put under prior review by a number of administrators, each with authority to exercise prior restraint.

Thill said she "was told the journalism program would be changed," as a response to the story and the feedback from the community. She said she was also told the journalism classes, which she had exclusively taught, would be split up among three separate teachers.

"After 23 years of experience, I was down to just one section of The Statesman," Thill said. "It seemed like I was expected to train my replacements."

When the prior review policy was implemented, and after pressure she felt from the principal and other administrators that chilled free speech at the school, Thill decided it was in her best interest to resign as adviser to The Statesman and instead teach English.

The paper and journalism classes were split into two sections and left under the control of two teachers without Thill's level of experience in the field.

Thill said the divided staff caused some of the students to feel discouraged and that there was nobody on their side fighting for them.

"When I stopped teaching the class, nine or 10 kids dropped the class," she said. "Some of them said they felt hopeless. [The students] were so worried and so cautious after this. Some of them dropped stories they were planning on covering -- there was pressure not to pursue stories."

One of the challenges for many schools like Stevenson High School, Thill said, is helping administrators understand the value of free speech.

"I don't know that many administrators really know what the student press is all about," she said.

Above all, Thill feels the student journalists who are still working and writing under a school administration that chills speech are the individuals deserving recognition.

"I think the kids are the ones who deserve this award," Thill said. "The students were traumatized to see their work disparaged on the front page of the [local paper]. But I give the credit to the kids who are trying to do real journalism."

Thill received her award to a standing ovation at the national high school journalism convention awards ceremony on Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C. She continues to teach at Stevenson High in the English Department.

Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler -- Prior review no more

Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler fought as advocates for press freedom after administrators at Conestoga High School, near Philadelphia, attempted to implement a policy of mandatory prior review. Unhappy with the limitations of the policy, Rome and Zweifler spent months in meetings and gaining support for their cause to relax the restrictive elements of the new policy.

"It was upsetting and angering, what they were trying to do," Rome said.

The policy came in the wake of a number of hard-hitting stories published in The Spoke. In the year leading up to the attempted policy change, The Spoke published stories on student gambling, teen pregnancy, and life as an LGBT high school student.

Weeks before the district superintendent proposed tightening the school's policy on student publications, The Spoke published a story, "Obligation to Report," which was an investigation of the school district's policies regarding employees with criminal backgrounds. The story focused on a janitor with a criminal background whose record went undetected by the school district until he was arrested in connection with a string of bank robberies.

The story got attention and helped generate support for state legislation for more stringent criminal background checks for school employees. Despite what Rome and Zweifler considered a positive response, weeks after publication administrators attempted to implement the prior mandatory review policy for the paper.

Rome and Zweifler said they believed the change in the policy was related to the stories.

"The timing was very suspect to us," said Zweifler, now editor-in-chief of The Spoke.

Rome, who is now a student at Princeton University and was primary author of the "Obligation to Report" story, said the proposed policy "came out of the blue."

Zweifler and Rome were told by district officials that the policy was being looked at because it was up for a periodic review. The last time the policy had been reviewed by Tredyffrin/Easttown School District officials was 1994.

The school's existing policy was 86 words long, Zweifler said. The new proposed policy was seven pages long and would have allowed officials to censor anything that "represented the school or community in a bad light."

Rome and Zweifler both said at that point it was hard not to act immediately on emotions of outrage and anger.

"It would have been very easy to act on emotions," Zweifler said. "When we saw what they were trying to do, we had some pretty strong emotions. It helped to keep a cool, level head and remain respectful."

He said the students worked to ensure they were taking the right steps to begin productive dialogue about the situation. They contacted the Student Press Law Center and the Pennsylvania School Press Association to develop a strategy to fight the new policy.

"We took time to step back and decided on a three-pronged strategy," Zweifler said.

First, the students decided to reach out to the community and the readership of the paper. Second, they reached out to local media to enlist the help of others concerned with First Amendment freedoms. And finally, the students engaged school board members so they would make it a priority.

"We really saw that students can effect change with their school board and with their superiors," Zweifler said. Rome said the students were lucky in some of the help they received.

"The stars really aligned for us, because one of the school board candidates made it part of their platform [to promote student press freedom]," he said.

As part of the process of bringing about change in the policy, the students said they had to attend a number of meetings with district officials.

"One of the board members asked; 'Do you think there are good student papers without prior review?' and I immediately thought of examples of great papers in California and Kansas (both states that have student free expression laws) without it," Rome said.

"They show that if you give students freedom they're entitled to, they're not going to just go out and break the law."

After numerous revisions and even more meetings, the school board and the students were able to agree on a policy in September 2009 that would protect the interests of the district and of the students.

"We're very comfortable with the new policy," Zweifler said. "It's in line with the law and in line with the Tinker standard."

Tinker is the Supreme Court's landmark 1969 ruling recognizing broad free-speech protections for students at public institutions.

The policy, as it stands now, allows some oversight by the publication's advisers, but does not give the administration a hand in the editing process of the paper.

As part of their strategy to reach out to the community, Zweifler and Rome set up a Web site,

"We set up the Web site with two goals in mind," Rome said. "First, we wanted to use it to keep a watch on what's going on at The Spoke. And second, we wanted it to be a resource for people facing censorship."Zweifler said the Web site helped people get involved online to offer their support.

"I think this really shows students that it's possible -- that you can get what's right," he said.

If students find themselves facing censorship, Zweifler said it is important to always adopt a levelheaded approach to the situation.

"Make sure you talk with people, not over them," he said. "Sometimes you have to educate [administrators about student rights]. Speak with them. Educate yourself and learn about legal standards and your rights."

Even thought parts of the process were challenging and upsetting, Rome said the students were motivated because they were fighting for a good cause.

"We were doing it for future students," Rome said. "Another issue here was our role in the community -- that's what kept us going."

Rome and Zweifler both said they were humbled to receive the award, and that they are grateful for the involvement of all of the organizations that helped them.

"We've had such tremendous support from the community," Rome said. "We've been working with the SPLC since the gambling story. They helped us so we could jump right in -- they've been a fantastic resource."Rome's experiences at his newspaper taught him lessons not usually learned in the classroom.

"It's all about the opportunities," he said. "Looking back, it's not about the AP stuff you learn, but the experiences you get. You learn things you can't learn anywhere else."

The award was presented to Rome and Zweifler on Nov. 14 at the Journalism Education Association/NSPA awards ceremony, attended by approximately 6,200 students, in Washington, D.C.

Along with the Courage in Student Journalism Award, Rome, Zweifler and The Spoke won a number of other awards.

reports, Winter 2009-10