Courage in Student Journalism Awards Announced
Ariz. Students, Mich. Principal Honored for Stands Against Censorship
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director
703.807.1904 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Arizona student journalists who prevailed over the high school's censorship of a news article and finally published their story 10 months later, and a Michigan principal who defended his journalism students against a misleading attack campaign by community critics, are the recipients of the 2010 Courage in Student Journalism Awards.
The student winners are the staff of The Challenge at Thunderbird High School in Glendale, Ariz., led by former editor-in-chief Vaughn Hillyard and business manager Sophia Curran. The faculty/administration winner is William C. ("Kit") Moran, the principal of Dexter High School in Dexter, Mich., whose student newspaper is The Squall.
The awards, which will be presented at the National High School Journalism Convention on Nov. 13 in Kansas City, are given each year to student journalists and school officials who have demonstrated outstanding support for the free-press rights of students.
The presenting sponsor is the Center for Scholastic Journalism, a program of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. The award is co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.
Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney and the executive director of the SPLC, said the staff of The Challenge stood out among dozens of deserving nominees. "We saw many worthy candidates who did outstanding journalistic work, and many excellent candidates who showed bravery in facing down censorship, but Vaughn, Sophia and their staff managed to combine both of these in a single entry. These students pursued the kind of meaningful, substantive story that exemplifies the watchdog function of journalism at its best. Instead of being congratulated for a job well done, they faced a gauntlet of harassment and obstruction. But they knew they were right and their school was wrong, and they never wavered in their determination."
The controversy at The Challenge erupted when the staff wrote an article for the final newspaper of the 2008-2009 school year candidly discussing many teachers' skepticism about a teacher testing program. Just as the paper was going to press, Principal Matt Belden pulled the article, claiming it was biased -- even though administrators refused to provide comments to balance the article. The Challenge staff went to press with a blank, 8 1/2-inch square of white space.
The students pursued three levels of administrative appeals -- all of which were denied -- before obtaining volunteer legal assistance from renowned media lawyer David Bodney of Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, in Phoenix. Bodney negotiated a resolution permitting the students to publish the article -- with the addition of comments from district officials who had refused comment in the original story.
Hillyard, who is enrolled at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism, remained committed to the fight even after graduating from Thunderbird: "From the very beginning, I quickly realized the great journalism community that surrounded us locally and nationally. I knew we were fighting the good fight on behalf of our school, the community and the journalism field, and I hope our newspaper's success in overcoming censorship can motivate others to push back against those that try to silence the voices of others."
He said that with the assistance of Curran, faculty adviser Sherri Siwek and the newspaper staff, "it was an amazing journey that gave me the opportunity to learn why it is crucial we protect the rights of the press."
Principal Moran received the administrator award for refusing to censor The Squall despite fierce attacks from community members who claimed the paper was printing content inappropriate for its school-age audience. Unrest over the content resulted in the creation of anonymous blog distorting the content of The Squall as "tabloid journalism," and calls for the school district to strip the students of autonomy over editorial judgments.
The controversy prompted the Dexter school board to review the publication policies for The Squall, which limit the school's authority to censor student speech. The board declined to remove the "public forum" designation protecting student publications, a balanced approach that allows students to make editorial content decisions as long as what they publish is not unlawful or substantially disruptive of school.
"I believe that journalism in America is crucial to our democracy," said Moran, a longtime English teacher and coach who has been principal at Dexter since 2006. "A free society needs a free press. This isn't new, but allowing this concept to be played out in high school may seem a bit radical. However, if we teach our students sound journalistic methods and ethics and allow them to act as journalists, we provide a rich and robust environment for their education."
Moran, who holds degrees from Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University, was also honored as the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association's Administrator of the Year for 2010.
LoMonte said Moran's understanding of the educational value of student journalism should serve as an example to other school administrators.
"Kit Moran is the principal that every student deserves -- someone who understands that the path of least resistance is not the path to a great education," LoMonte said. "At least Dexter is one high school that doesn't have to 'wait for Superman,' because he's already there."
He continued: "We have seen politically motivated scare campaigns succeed in districts with weak leaders who knuckle under at the first sign of controversy. Mr. Moran didn't knuckle under, and because of his fortitude and that of the superintendent and school board, The Squall is still a forum for the honest and informed discussion of student views."
The Courage in Student Journalism Awards will be presented at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association convention in Kansas City before an audience of thousands of high school journalists and advisers. Each award carries a $1,000 cash prize, made possible by the generosity of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.